"Pirate Latitudes" by Michael Crichton: It's pointless to complain about the cardboard characters, dreadful action-movie dialogue and wildly improbable plot points in Michael Crichton's latest — and last — book, published posthumously.
Sure, "Pirate Latitudes" has all that, in spades, but you don't buy a Crichton book for psychological acuity and dramatic realism. It's supposed to be disposable fun, a book that sits out front in bookstores and attracts readers with the author's name printed larger than the title.
And certainly, the book manages to be entertaining, but it still reads like a cheap novelization of a movie that hasn't been made yet. It's cinematic, but only in the same way that PG-13 popcorn movies are cinematic. It's visual, it's compelling and it's confidently ridiculous.
You could sum up most of Crichton's previous best-selling titles with a word or phrase and an exclamation point: dinosaurs! ("Jurassic Park"); time travel! ("Timeline"); sexual harassment! ("Disclosure"). This one is just as straightforward: Pirates!
It's set in 1665 in Jamaica and the Caribbean islands, and it concerns exactly what you would expect: high-seas adventure, a treasure galleon and a whole boatload of swashbuckling. It's only a little disappointing not to find any one walking a plank or singing a sea shanty.
No, our main character, Captain Charles Hunter may not have a parrot on his shoulder or mutter anything about his hearties, but he's certainly a pirate. He's commanding, imperious, irresistible to various lasses and wenches, and singularly determined to capture a Spanish galleon loaded down with treasure.
Crichton, who usually takes some scientific research or historical fact as a jumping-off point, probably has some solid stuff in this book about sailing, piracy and 17th-century mores. Maybe English gentlemen of the time actually used ground earthworms to keep their hair from turning white, or used powdered rabbit's head as toothpaste, or treated gout with the oil of a red-haired dog. (How does one oil a dog anyway?)
Once the main story sets sail, Crichton jumps from one spectacular adventure to another without pause, drawing a straight line from the crew's capture and escape to the theft of the treasure ship, the ensuing chase and the sea battle — followed, of course, by the requisite hurricane, then cannibals and sea monsters. Or, rather, Sea Monsters!
The rapid-fire adventure is also salted generously with sex and violence. Sailors get shot in the head, blood gushes, brains splatter. Eager maidens are disrobed and bedded down without much effort. There's a gruesome killfest extravaganza near the conclusion that neatly ties up all the loose ends. But it's action-movie sex and violence: flashy, without repercussions or remorse. These aren't people getting killed; they're just pirates.
In all, there's a lot of pirating stuffed into 320 fast-moving pages, a little bit like the frenzied doctoring that went on in Crichton's hit TV show "ER," and it's hard after a while to swallow all that dying and dramatic rescuing in such a short space. We're not looking for realism, of course, but all the nick-of-time escapes and rescues strain belief, even by the looser standards of an adventure novel.
Take the climactic scene, maybe the most ludicrous invention in the whole book. Not to give away any surprises, but it entails a bit of trickery involving a makeshift scarecrow and an enthusiastic prostitute. (Scarecrows!) Consider that for a moment, me hearties, and you'll get a sense of just how loopy a pirate's life can be.