Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton is supposedly his penultimate novel (…another one is slated for release in 2010). The script was found in his computer after his untimely demise in 2008, and has been published posthumously around a year later. That is reason enough for the book to be one of the bestsellers of the year, especially considering Crichton’s prowess in story-telling. The novel resembles heist movies like Ocean’s eleven. It also belongs to the same genre as another of Crichton’s renowned novel – The Great Train Robbery. The novel is a departure from Crichton’s latest works, where the author invariably had chosen scientific themes, especially the hottest discussed topics. On the contrary, in Pirate Latitudes, Crichton takes back the readers half a millennium back to the era of wars, plagues and pirates.
The story is set in the mid-colonial era, towards the end of the 17th century, when the European powers are fighting each other to establish control over the colonies of Central America. The story begins in the English colony of Jamaica. A privateering expedition sets off from here, under the captaincy of Charles Hunter. He assembles a crew of seamen with expertise in different sea tactics, who set out on a voyage to capture a Spanish treasure-vessel stationed in a well guarded and impregnable Spanish harbour of Matanceros. Enemy encounters, hurricanes, sea-monsters, cannibals, escape-tactics, betrayal and retaliation – all these make the story of the novel.
Coming to the review, I should admit the novel has the same characteristics of a Typical Tamil masala movie. A superhero, a heroine who unnecessarily comes around only for adding spice, a loud villain – all of these find place in the novel. The characterization and the sequence of events have been laid out in a neat way, acquainting the reader slowly to the mood of the novel – in this case, the social life in a Caribbean colony 400 years back. However, the author takes pains in detailing the character of Sir Almont – the governor of Jamaica in the initial chapters of the novel, though he doesn’t have much bearing on the rest of the novel, except for brief comebacks – which I felt odd. On the other hand, the protogonist Hunter, gets lesser space at the beginning of the novel.
The novel seems like a summation of smaller incidents, brought forth one after the other. Captain Hunter, similar to the hero in the movie 2012, invariably overcomes all mishaps and emerges victorious, however difficult the situations might be and however stupid his decisions might be. What lacks is a Crichton stamp! A single continuous message line, which the protogonist advocates throughout the lenght of the novel, which could have been a strong connecting wire, is conspicuous by its absence. Nevertheless, all characters in the novel have been portrayed right to the extent required, and accomplish their task pretty well. In fact, I believe the interest in these characters is the one which keeps the reader turning pages. The techniques of the pirates, and the intricacies of sea voyages have been construed very well with enough twists and turns to keep the reader engaged.
The novel is relatively short, or looks so because of the lack of details. The incidents draws the reader quite well into the scene of the novel, but it is not a gripping or compelling read. Half way through the novel, a lot of things feel cliched, and towards the end of the novel, it is not a herculean task to guess what would be the sequence of events leading to the ending. The novel is a casual read, and unlike other Crichton’s novels, Pirate Latitudes lacks the elaboration and substantiation that are typical of Crichton’s masterpieces. The novel somehow feels shallow, and a few scenes in the novel, feel like they end abruptly, leaving the readers in vacuum.
I should also mention that having watched a good deal of pirate movies, the readers are left with little space to imagine, and quite a lot of incidents mentioned in the novel come before our eyes straight from the movies. In fact, I could remember exact scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series while reading few parts of the novel, and even an old Tamil movie of the sixties, MGR’s Aayirathil Oruvan during some of the mishaps the voyage encounters. I can only imagine that the novel could have been an incomplete work, or one written in his early stages as a writer, on which Circhton might have had several pending things to add or change, which never found the light of the day.
The final verdict: Though not one of Crichton’s best, the novel is intriguing enough for a lazy read.