Book Review: Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes
Another road trip, another audiobook!
I haven’t read a Crichton book in years and years, but I still have a bit of nostalgia for his work. As a dinosaur-obsessed little kid, I read Jurassic Park maybe a little too soon than I should have– it was one of the first books I ever read that used the word “fuck.” Add in a bit of gore (I particularly remember the bit about Nedry getting his intestines ripped out by a dilophosaurus), and you’ve got a mind-blowing read for a nerdy and awkward sixth grader.
And so, when I stumbled across Pirate Latitudes, I went all for it. I mean, who doesn’t love a good swashed buckle?
Pirate Latitudes centers around Captain Charles Hunter, a privateer (not a pirate, no-sir) as he plans a raid to capture Spanish treasure galleon in the 17th century Caribbean. To this end, he takes on a motley bunch of cutthroats with nicknames like The Jew (the explosives expert), The Moor (the muscle), and Les Yeux, (the lookout). Les Yeux is probably the most interesting of the lot: she’s a woman who dresses and lives like a man in order to get pirate riches and stuff. Which actually happened from time to time, so that’s … kind of historical, right?
Speaking of historicity, Pirate Latitudes is … okay. I’m not an expert on 17th century Jamaica, so I can’t quibble over locations or dates or anything. Though what I can complain about is a bit where Crichton describes a powder magazine in a Spanish fortress lit by unattended torches. Because open flames in an explosives warehouse is such a good idea.
Pirate Latitudes progresses in a fairly episodic manner, as Hunter as his crew sail from one misadventure to another. There are captures and escapes and explosions and hurricanes and broadsides and a glowing kraken and cannibals and buried treasure and a sadistic, coco-chewing Spanish officer. Taken on their own, each interlude is entertaining enough, but they feel erratic and disconnected from each other. Oh, and since this is Crichton, things get fairly gory from time to time– lots of brains are blown out with flintlock pistols, and coco-Spaniard tortures a man to death by making rats eat his face. I’d forgotten how gritty and gruesome Crichton’s stuff could be sometimes.
As I learned later, Pirate Latitudes was a manuscript of Crichton’s published posthumously. I guess I can’t fault Crichton’s family and/or HarperCollins for putting The Pirate Latitudes out there– I’m sure someone said ‘oh hey, people love those Johnny Depp movies, let’s make ALL THE MONEY!’ Or, well, some of the money, because who reads anymore?
So there’s a reason Crichton never published Pirate Latitudes in his lifetime. It’s not a crappy book per-se, it’s just underdeveloped, unfinished. There’s the disconnect between the episodic adventures, for one– it gives the book a weird sort of pacing. It probably doesn’t help that Hunter kills coco-Spaniard like halfway through the book, leaving it bereft of a proper villain. On top of that, Crichton brings in a bunch of other characters … and promptly forgets about them. The most glaring example being the 15 year old convict girl who’s deported to Jamaica when she’s accused of witchcraft. The book makes it seem like she’s going to be a major character (stowed away on Hunter’s ship disguised as a cabin boy, perhaps?) but Crichton pretty much forgets about her after a skeevy sex scene. The word ‘pudenda’ is used. Gross.
To be honest, Pirate Latitudes is pretty bad to women, all around. Admittedly, the 1600’s weren’t exactly a good time to be a woman. Still, the women of Pirate Latitudes are mostly there to be victimized in one way or another. Even Les Yeux comes off badly, as she’s consistently the most terrified of Hunter’s crew by whatever new madness they run into. The worst offender is the shrewish English Lady Hunter rescues from coco-Spaniard’s dungeons. She’s shrill and ignorant and complains a lot, and … that’s it. I kept waiting for some big revelation to reveal further depths to her character, to give her more agency … but nope. She’s just a damsel. The unpolished nature of Pirate Latitudes doesn’t serve Lady Whatsherface very well, either. At one point, a couple of Hunter’s crewmen try to throw her overboard because they think she’s a witch. Hunter yells and swears at them to stop, and so Lady Whatsherface is allowed to safely hole up in her cabin once more … whereupon she immediately starts lighting candles and carves a pentagram into the floor. Because she’s a little bit of a witch, you see.
This is never brought up again.
The audiobook version of Pirate Latitudes is decent enough– John Bedford Lloyd does a good job of narrating, though sometimes the various European accents come off as slightly ridiculous. Which may just be a choice on his part, but I digress.
So yeah. Crichton had some good ideas with Pirate Latitudes, but the book honestly should have gone through a couple more drafts before it was published. Heck, just off the top of my head, I can think of some easy ways to improve it and make it more coherent, but it’s a little late now. Pirate Latitudes is the first of Crichton’s books to be published posthumously, but not the last– another one, Micro, is about mad scientists with shrink rays, and one called Dragon’s Teeth just came out, touching on the Bone Wars. The reviews of that one aren’t looking very promising either, but … dinosaurs and cowboys are cool, right?
Might wait ’til that one hits the clearance rack too.