The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

With the exception of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Hollywood has neglected to produce any historically accurate movies about pirates or privateers. To my knowledge, the publishing industry seems to have the same problem. Every single book I've ever read about sailing that's been published in the last 50 years has smacked of clich├ęd piratical romanticism.

I've done a lot of research on pirates. Back in the autumn of '08, while I was still in high school, I wrote a novel called Lady Wick. This novel was about—you guessed it—pirates. I read at least six pirate history books cover-to-cover and countless articles on seafaring in the 16-, 17-, and 1800's. And, while Lady Wick wasn't my finest endeavor and yes, smacked of romanticism by the end of the first draft, I learned that actual pirates are a whole lot better than the watered down lot Hollywood gives in the form of multi-million dollar blockbusters.

I guess that's why I was a bit skeptical when I received Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton for Christmas. I let it languish on the bookshelf for a while, and finally got around to reading it a few days ago.

Wow.

Captain Charles Hunter is a privateer—that is, basically a government-commissioned pirate—currently residing in Port Royal, Jamaica. Rumor has it that a Spanish treasure galleon is stuck waiting for repairs on the island of Matanceros, and Captain Hunter decides to try his luck against the Spaniards for the treasure.

With the promise of guaranteed gold, Governor James Almont of Jamaica agrees to fund Captain Hunter's venture—as long as he gets his due pay. And so, the cunning Captain Hunter sets out to gather a motley of characters as his crew.

From a mute giant to a woman masquerading as a man, the characters of Pirate Latitudes are as diverse as they are enjoyable. Many of them seem to have been inspired by history's more colorful characters. Most notably would be Lazue—whose life bears a striking resemblance to that of Mary Read.

The funny thing is that, while there are many characters whose back stories and psyches could be explored, Pirate Latitudes is an almost exclusively plot-driven novel. It's sprawling story nearly overshadows the characters to the point of excessiveness. I say 'nearly', because it stops just in time, leaving you with a plot that continues to grow and grow, and characters to interact neatly within their boundaries.

This leads me to believe that Crichton is a man in charge of his novels. Some writers (like me) have a vague idea of a plot, but they let the characters decide where the story goes, often taking it in a radically different direction than first intended. But, other writers—like Crichton—seem to have a rigid structure that their characters adhere to, and each character has a role that they fulfill… and then they die.

Pirate Latitudes is a quick, movie-like read. With all the elements (almost a melting pot) of good pirate fiction, and the historical backing to boot, you'll not only learn much about sailing in the late 1600's—you'll be entertained at the same time. If more pirate fiction was written with such care and detail, I'd be inclined to recommend more books to my friends. Authors and Filmmakers: do yourself a favor, and take a cue from Michael Crichton. History is not overrated, and this is one book you don't want to miss.

Note: I've recently been told that there *is* a movie in production based off of Pirate Latitudes. I'll be watching very carefully when it comes out in a few years, and I'll let you all knwo whether it's worth watching or not.

Buy it on Amazon
Author's Website

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