Crichton’s last not his best

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 6, 2009

“Pirate Latitudes: A Novel,” by Michael Crichton. Harper, 314 pp. $27.99.
By Tim Rutten
Los Angeles Times
When it comes to popular entertainment, the late Michael Crichton was about as successful as any writer could hope to be.
His 15 novels and four nonfiction works have sold a staggering 150 million copies worldwide. Fourteen of his books were made into films. By the time he died last year at age 66, he’d also written or co-authored 10 screenplays and created two television series for which he wrote multiple episodes.
In 1994, he became the only writer in history to achieve what might be called the popular author’s grand slam, when he simultaneously had the top-grossing film in theaters, the most popular series on television and the country’s bestselling book. (The movie was “Jurassic Park,” the series was “ER” and the novel was “Disclosure.”)
This week’s posthumous publication of “Pirate Latitudes” certainly won’t undermine that legacy, but neither will it do much to burnish it. Crichton, who was trained as a physical anthropologist and a physician at Harvard, is best known for thrillers incorporating science and technology. He had a genuine facility for weaving such information into breakneck-paced narratives, whose closest antecedents were the science/fantasy adventures of Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Barsoom” novels.
“Pirate Latitudes,” a buccaneer saga set in the 17th century Caribbean, harks back to Crichton’s occasional forays into historical romance, such as 1975’s “The Great Train Robbery” (high Victoriana) and his 1976 medieval saga, “Eaters of the Dead” (Vikings and a wandering Muslim scholar/diplomat battle remnant Neanderthals).
Unlike those earlier works, though, “Pirate Latitudes” comes to us with an unusual history of its own. The completed manuscript was “discovered” by Crichton’s assistant in one of the author’s computer files after his death, along with what’s been described as an unfinished “techno-thriller.”
Lynn Nesbit, Crichton’s longtime agent, told The Wall Street Journal that “Michael was extremely secretive. … We never knew what he was working on until he turned it in.” Nesbit also said that Crichton used several computers simultaneously, so there may be other incomplete manuscripts lurking on the hard drives. “We’re still sorting through it all,” she said. In the meantime, his publisher, HarperCollins, intends to hire another writer to finish the thriller.
What to do with the work a dead writer consciously leaves unpublished is a vexed question. Obviously, we’re not talking Joyce or Hemingway here, but Crichton had a remarkable career on its own terms and, somehow, respect ought to be paid. If he had a completed novel stowed away, there probably was a reason. It may be quite old.
In fact, “Pirate Latitudes” is a bit closer to Crichton’s juvenilia than to his mid-career and mature work. He may have intended to rework it. Character development was never one of the author’s long suits, though Charles Hunter, the rakish but honorable privateer who is the hero of this novel, and his evil nemesis, the sadistic Spaniard Cazalla, are a trifle one-dimensional even by Crichton’s standards.
Similarly, asides in the opening chapters that explain the difference between pirates and privateers ó our hero is the latter ó and how the plague ravaged England are rather clumsily inserted.
Hiring another writer to complete his unfinished books seems a bit much. Crichton collaborated on several screenplays but never on a book over a very long career ó even though farming out the actual writing of thrillers is today a common practice among many of the genre’s biggest sellers. Clearly, it’s not a practice he approved in life.
The point here is really a question: Are a writer’s heirs really entitled to strip-mine his papers for every conceivable nugget of value?
In the absence of legal instructions to the contrary, one supposes so ó and then the market will decide whether they were justified, which is the tragedy of our age.
In any event, if you’re on an airplane for a flight of several hours and not in a particularly demanding mood, “Pirate Latitudes” would be a reasonably agreeable companion.
The setting is the crown colony of Port Royal in Jamaica. Hunter, our dashing privateer, is an American ó coincidentally a Harvard man ó born in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. When asked by an attractive woman whether he’s a Puritan, he replies, “Only by birth.” You get the picture.
Meanwhile, a treasure ship has arrived in the heavily fortified Spanish port of Matanceros, and Hunter is asked to capture it.
He assembles a small but highly skilled group of confreres, including a Jewish explosives expert and a female navigator who wears men’s clothing and sometimes bares her breasts in sword fights, the better to startle her adversaries. (It probably would work on me.) All, by the way, have some kind of personal grudge against Cazalla.
If you think you’ve been here before, it’s probably because you’ve seen one of several hundred Hollywood films in which the plucky little platoon is meant to look like America ó one from Column A and one from Column B. The inspirations here all are cinematic, which probably is why Steven Spielberg already has snapped up the film rights to “Pirate Latitudes.” It’s just too bad that Harrison Ford is too old to play Hunter.
A reader will want to be sufficiently undemanding so as not to mind the fact that potentially interesting characters simply vanish from the narrative and there’s a good bit of repetition.
Similarly, meticulous research always was a hallmark of Crichton’s better books, but it’s not in evidence here. Descriptions of seamanship are rudimentary and, if you happen to be a Patrick O’Brian fan, laughable. The dialogue, except in flashes, is pure 1940s matinee, which lends events an unintended campy quality. (There are only so many interjections of “God’s blood” one can endure with equanimity.)Crichton’s hard-core fans may wish to overlook all this. If you’re simply a reader in search of a great pirate novel, pick up John Lawrence’s recent illustrated version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” which is wonderfully unpretentious and elegant literature.