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Pirate Latitudes
Michael Crichton
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

Arrr matey, “Pirate Latitudes,” by Michael Crichton, is a cut-throat adventure packed with Spanish gold, wicked women, corrupt officials, and swashbuckling galore!

When Governor James Almont stepped foot on Jamaica in 1665, it was an isolated British outpost surrounded by the Spanish empire. British law meant nothing in the Caribbean – here brutality ruled and what justice existed was merciless. Only the fittest, meanest, or most cunning survived. American “privateers,” who believed any Spanish gold, “was gold for the taking,” had all three characteristics. And what Almont lacked in fitness, he made up for in astuteness. He enters into a partnership with Captain Charles Hunter, a Harvard graduate who makes a living collecting Spanish gold. This arrangement not only keeps the Spanish at bay; it sweetens both of their personal coffers too.

Of course there’s no real difference between a pirate and a privateer, but being proclaimed a “pirate” usually meant being “hung by the neck until dead.” Therefore Almont always made the following distinction: privateers captured Spanish gold for the Crown. Pirates gathered gold for themselves. The pirates demonstrated their understanding of the alliance by nicknaming the governor “James the Tenth.” And each knew that failing to give Almont his rightful cut of Spanish booty resulted in death.

Enter the fly in the ointment, Robert Hacklett, the governor’s newly appointed secretary. He and his wife experienced an arduous journey from Bristol aboard the Godspeed. After their carriage ride through the streets of Port Royal, Hacklett wails to Almont, “I naturally anticipated some semblance of Christian order and lawful conduct.” Almont quickly surmises Hacklett is a “by-the-book man,” ill prepared for life in the Caribbean. As for Mrs. Hacklett, she plays the part of the dutiful wife, while quickly arranging a liaison with the handsome Captain Hunter.

Thirty-seven female convicts were also on board the Godspeed. After close examination, Almont picked the youngest and prettiest one, Mistress Ann Sharpe, to become his new “housekeeper.” Though barely fourteen, Sharpe is hardly naïve. She takes it upon herself to intercept Hacklett’s correspondence to the King, knowing Almont might “wish to read it first.”

But enough about Jamaica’s domestic scene – it’s time to get out the cutlass. The El Trinidad, said to be carrying a treasure worth “five hundred thousand pounds,” is anchored in Matanceros harbor. Unfortunately Cazalla, a blood-thirsty Spanish commander who enjoys feeding his captives their own body parts, has established a fortress on the island. Hunter knows a frontal attack on Cazalla’s forces will fail. He must put together a team willing to scale the mountainous side of the island. From there they will slip into the harbor and liberate the treasure.

Hunter’s first recruit is Don Diego, a Jew with knowledge of explosives and an intense hatred for all things Spanish. Mr. Enders is next to join. He is a barber-surgeon, an accomplished artist, and the best helmsman in the New World. Basa the Moor, a mute endowed with the strength of a bull, happily signs on. Lazue, a cross-dressing female pirate, has the keen sight needed to guide Hunter’s ship through the shallowest shoals. She’s also a superb marksman, with the habit of confusing the enemy by displaying her breasts during battle. Last Hunter reluctantly hires Sanson, a ruthless Frenchman famous “for his skill with the saber, the pistol, and his favorite weapon, the crossbow.” Hunter understands once he has the treasure, he will have the additional task of keeping it out of Sanson’s hands. But he has no choice, he needs his deadly skills.

I love this book, it’s a fast moving pirate tale based on historic facts packed with daring feats, narrow escapes, and the revenge of the sea. I didn’t put it down from start to finish. However, while reading the novel, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was written as a screen play. Plot is paramount in Crichton’s books, and this one lacks the complex plot found in most of his works. And while Crichton usually gives readers a healthy supply of good guys, bad guys, and well-intentioned fools, this manuscript contains just enough main and secondary characters for a good movie. But right on the back cover flap, HarperCollins Publishers writes, “Pirate Latitudes was discovered as a complete manuscript in his files after his death in 2008.”

Nevertheless, I have my doubts. So I e-mailed and called the publisher trying to ascertain if there was just the tiniest chance Crichton could have written this as something other than a novel. I also wanted to know when Crichton wrote the manuscript. Perhaps he originally had a movie in mind only to discover Disney writers, who produced the Pirates of the Caribbean, had beaten him to the punch.  Unfortunately, that’s the problem with works published posthumously, you can’t ask the author. And the publisher did not wish to respond to my enquiries.

But don’t let that stop you from reading “Pirate Latitudes.” This is the last of many good stories Crichton gave his readers.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
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