Book review: Michael Crichton, Pirate Latitudes

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Pirate Latitudes is set in the mid-17th century, as England, Spain and other monarchies uneasily coexist in their efforts to colonize the New World. From the British stronghold on Jamaica known as Port Royal -- a locale familiar to fans of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, albeit rendered in much more realistic/lawless fashion -- the story follows the exploits of English privateer Captain Charles Hunter during his tacitly approved mission to attack a Spanish fortress and return home with his prize. All of the expected swashbuckling traditions are in place, from the swordplay and the well-born Lady in distress to the appearance of an honest-to-God sea monster and the inevitable double-cross. And so is Crichton's familiar tight, matter-of-fact prose style; Pirate Latitudes moves along effortlessly from one engaging sequence to the next.

What's missing, though, is the sense of depth that marks the writer's other work, even other similarly historical tales such as The Great Train Robbery and Timeline. In those books, Crichton goes out of his way to show us what it was like to be a part of those times, touching on everything from the technology of waste management to the vagaries of social strata. There are some details here, as well, but they're mentioned in passing, without the finely-honed consideration or the feeling that the author is earnestly passionate about putting us in that world as completely as his talents allow. In Pirate Latitudes, social, anthropological and technical considerations are streamlined in favor of a classic adventure-serial plot that's built for speed and thrills.

Which is fine. The book is a solidly constructed and entertaining read, and perfect for one or two nights of staying up late turning pages to see what happens next. Longtime fans, however, will almost certainly feel something missing -- the weighty atmosphere of a fully-realized world, an insight into some technological niche, an ethical quandary meant to run around the brain for a few days or weeks. Perhaps they'll get it with the next posthumous novel, currently shrouded in secrecy but touted as a return to the full-blown tech-centric suspense exercises that made Crichton famous.

When cancer took Michael Crichton last November, pop lit lost one of its most original and thought-provoking multi-hyphenates. The "master of the techno thriller" wove complicated technical details (not to mention hot-button social issues and contemporary ethical conundrums) so seamlessly into his deceptively straightforward narratives that many supermarket-rack readers were unaware they were getting schooled in the moral ramifications of industrial-scale genetic manipulation while they stayed up late thrilling to dinosaurs run amok.

Strange, then, that Pirate Latitudes — the first of two planned posthumous Crichton novels, and the only one reportedly completed by the author himself — lacks that intricately layered feel, and comes up light on those passages where the writer steps only slightly away from the plot to incorporate technological, historical or procedural facts every bit as interesting as the action.

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