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BOOKS: ‘Pirate Latitudes’

PIRATE LATITUDES
By Michael Crichton
Harper, $27.99, 312 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.

According to a legendary anecdote, the distinguished dramatist George Bernard Shaw once attended the opening night of one of his plays, at the conclusion of which the audience erupted in thunderous applause and called, "Author! Author!" Dutifully, Shaw mounted the stage and took a bow, amid cascading cheers. Eventually the applause died down, and a single voice erupted from the audience: "Sit down, Shaw! Your play's rotten!" To which Shaw smiled and replied, "My dear chap, I quite agree with you! But who are we to oppose the masses?"

There's always someone, isn't there? Consider the case of novelist and screenwriter Michael Crichton (1942-2008), the author of such works as "The Andromeda Strain," "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World"; director of the film "Westworld" (1973), producer of the film "Twister" (1996) and creator of the successful television series "ER." A physician by training, possessing great curiosity about the what-if's of life and imagination along with a mind for research and technology, he created works that lay "in the interface between fact and invention, certainty and possibility, the established and the extrapolated," according to science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon.

As such, his works are beloved by millions of readers and viewers but despised by a small but noisy clutch of critics — largely because several of his novels ran afoul of criticism's Sensitivity Police in matters related to sexual harassment ("Disclosure"), global warming ("State of Fear") and the essential decency of everyone who lives outside the United States ("Rising Sun"). For these transgressions, Mr. Crichton is regarded by some critics as merely an educated showman, the H. Rider Haggard of the modern age.

The problem with stereotyping any given writer thusly is that it makes it difficult for reviewers to discern when a truly good work is published. Or, as in the case of Mr. Crichton's latest, when a somewhat weaker work appears.

After the death of Mr. Crichton in 2008, a file containing an unpublished novel was discovered in his computer. That work, "Pirate Latitudes," is something of a finger exercise by a master craftsman: not a great work by any means, but one that showcases the how-tos of plotting and characterization. It may well be that Mr. Crichton never intended this work to appear in print; but even so, it displays in broad strokes just how a novel comes into being.

Set in the mid-17th century, "Pirate Latitudes" has as its theme the thin (perhaps nonexistent) line that exists between piracy on the high seas and privateering: the practice of several European nations to commission independent ship commanders to pursue and plunder foreign ships on the high seas, so long as they shared their take with the commissioning government.

From the beginning, we are introduced to the corrupt society of colonial Port Royal, Jamaica, and the royal governor, Sir James Almont, a gout-plagued man who lives for the comforts of his office. He is known behind his back as "James the Tenth" for his practice of skimming 10 percent off the profits of British privateers working the Caribbean. At the same time, Almont is well aware that he must walk carefully the fine line of sanctioning privateers, for Port Royal is one of the few British holdings within a largely hostile, Spanish-dominated realm. (It was not for nothing that the Caribbean Sea was long called the Spanish Main).

After being introduced to his fussy new secretary, fresh over from England, and a fresh-faced female servant who quickly and willingly succumbs to the governor's clumsy sexual overtures, Almont learns of a heavily laden treasure ship standing at anchor in the Spanish port of Matanceros, several days voyage from Port Royal. We are also introduced to the main character, swashbuckling privateer Charles Hunter — Captain Charles Hunter, who is interrupted in mid-debauch to be informed by Almont of the treasure ship and the fortune it holds.

At this point — after Hunter has learned of the treasure to be had — all the cogs and gears in the intricate clockwork novel engage and begin to turn. Hunter first selects a crew, the core members of which we are introduced to one at a time, each in his and her(!) distinctive quirks, skills, and desires. Captain and crew set sail on their adventure, and before it is over they have been captured by the Spanish, boarded the treasure ship, outwitted a persistent enemy, battled a tentacled sea monster, outrun bloodthirsty cannibals, endured terrible storms and hardships of every description, and returned to Port Royal, all thanks to Hunter's daring and intelligent leadership. But upon reaching journey's end, Hunter and his crew discover an unforeseen and deadly double betrayal — which the reader perhaps saw coming much earlier in the novel.

It is perhaps no accident that Mr. Crichton chose to set this novel aside in 2006, the year Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" was released. For in each work there are similar elements that go beyond the generic: the initial setting of Port Royal, a desperate sea battle with a better-armed foe, an encounter with a Kraken, brushes with the supernatural (which, in the case of "Pirate Latitudes," come completely out of the clear blue sky), and an uneasy alliance with a traitorous crewman. Even the jacket of Mr. Crichton's book bears the skull-and-crossed-cutlasses image that adorned the flag of real-life pirate "Calico Jack" Rackam, the model for Disney's Captain Jack Sparrow.

These similarities may account for the faintly unfinished feel about "Pirate Latitudes" — which is not to say that it's a poor book. Far from it. In fact, in its current form, "Pirate Latitudes" forms a fascinating snapshot-in-time from within the craftsman's studio. Characters are swiftly sketched in, given distinctive features and histories, and then set loose within the larger story. The plot itself seems carefully outlined and skillfully written, with unexpected turnings in the plot along with Mr. Crichton's signature attention to period detail and the technologies of the day. Despite its shortcomings, it is a compelling read. The novel is fairly short and has "Save Me for a Summer Beach Chair" written all over it.

James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow" (Cumberland House Books) and a longtime book reviewer.

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