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FICTION

Book World: Ron Charles reviews Michael Crichton's 'Pirate Latitudes'

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By Ron Charles
Wednesday, November 25, 2009

PIRATE LATITUDES

By Michael Crichton

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Harper. 312 pp. $27.99

Hoist the Jolly Roger above the bestseller list, ye mateys, 'cause Michael Crichton has just published a swashbuckling pirate thriller. The popular author of "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain" went to Davy Jones's locker last November, but his assistant found a finished draft of "Pirate Latitudes" on his computer, and Harper has plundered this booty like a chest of gold doubloons that washed up on shore. The first print run is a million copies, and Steven Spielberg has already signed on to produce the inevitable movie version, so drop sail and prepare to be boarded.

Although plenty of novels are ripped to shreds in Hollywood's shark-infested waters, "Pirate Latitudes" should enjoy smooth sailing to the silver screen. This hilariously exciting book already reads like a film treatment, jumping from one cinematic, doom-filled episode to the next as it cuts its bloody way through the encyclopedia of piracy from "Ahoy" to "Yo-ho-ho."

Crichton opens the story in 1665 in "a miserable, overcrowded, cutthroat-infested town" on the island of Jamaica, a wealthy if precarious British settlement deep in Spanish territory. King Charles II has signed a fragile treaty with Spain, but English pirates -- who euphemistically call themselves "privateers" -- continue to operate whenever and wherever opportunity arises. "Let me explain to you certain pertinent facts," the governor says in a rather too clunky bit of exposition, but tell your inner 14-year-old to hang on: Once we get past this first section, "Pirate Latitudes" howls along till the very last page.

The hero of this buccaneer adventure is Charles Hunter, captain of the Cassandra and "the most valued pirate in all these waters." Women call him a "bastard, a rogue, a cut-throat vicious rascally whoreson scoundrel" and then lick their lips and wink at him. Using some special genetic technique developed in "Jurassic Park," Crichton has crossbred Johnny Depp and Daniel Craig to create the coolest, handsomest, daringest sea dog in the world. (Guys, if you don't want to be Charles Hunter, have your testosterone level checked immediately.) When he gets word that a Spanish ship loaded with gold has arrived at a nearby island, Hunter can't resist the prize. No matter that 300 men failed in their attack on that impenetrable fortress just last year or that the commander is a notorious villain who finds "the screams of his dying victims restful and relaxing."

Sooner than you can say "Shiver me timbers," Hunter has assembled his piratical A-Team: Don Diego de Ramano, the Jew, is an explosives expert who makes fuses from rats' entrails; Mr. Enders, the barber-surgeon, is the best sea artist in Jamaica; Lazue, the transvestite, is a deadly markswoman who exposes her breasts in the heat of battle to disorient the enemy; Bassa, the Moor, had his tongue cut out, but he's just the man to scale a sheer 400-foot cliff of naked rock; and finally Sanson, the Frenchman, is "the most ruthless killer in all the Caribbean."

Crichton sends this motley crew off to the isle of Matanceros, which means "slaughter" in Spanish and may be the subtlest omen in his blood-soaked tale. "None of us will survive," a crewman tells Hunter, and that's not just the grog talking. Inside the eight-sided fort surrounded by 30-foot walls lurks that bilge-sucking villain who could flog the Penguin and Dr. No with one hand tied behind his back. He's a real Spanish charmer named Cazalla, who chokes his victims to death on their own testicles or lets rats chew off their faces. When thwarted, he shrieks, "Fools!" and shakes with uncontrollable rage.

The adventure that follows is a sort of "Great Train Robbery" with an eye patch and a peg leg -- one impossible deadly fix after another. "It was unheard of," Crichton reminds us, "an insane thing to do": from sword fights in burning buildings filled with gunpowder to crossbow attacks on sinking ships. Fortunately, Hunter is indestructible, the kind of guy who can jump 30 feet and still look suave in a puffy shirt, while dispatching battalions of Spanish soldiers: stabbed, crushed, strangled, drowned, shot, pierced and blown to smithereens. Even when he's "lost his mizzen top and his mainsail rigging on the leeside," our Cap'n Hunter takes on man-eating sharks, ship-crushing sea monsters, drum-thumping cannibals and ocean-dumping hurricanes.

And of course, no tale of high-seas adventure could come back to port without picking up a saucy wench in distress. This is, after all, a booty call in every sense. Hunter and Lady Sarah Almont bicker like sworn enemies through much of their voyage. Will they end up in bed? Does Polly want a cracker? The only distraction from these rip-roaring pages is fantasizing about which Hollywood pinup will traipse around deck in her underwear delivering lines like, "What will you vagabonds have with me? I presume I am in the clutches of pirates."

As in any Crichton novel, all of this breakneck adventure is decorated with little bits of historical and technical instruction that float down like parrot feathers here and there. We learn how a 17-man crew loads, aims and fires a cannon -- "two and a half tons of hot bronze." We learn that 17th-century pirates craved gold but considered platinum worthless. And we learn enough about sailing wooden ships through coral-lined shoals to pilot one ourselves. But Crichton always had a perfect sense of how much (or how little) background most readers really wanted. He may stop a moment to explain the jury system required by Parliament in 1612 or the predictive nature of waves, but then he's quick to shout, "Hoist anchor! Lively with the lines!" and we're off again.

If you're on the lookout for some light adventure this holiday season, thar she blows!

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.


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