Michael Crichton has never been a terribly graceful writer, but he was a master at plotting. His novels The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park wed terrific premises to rock-solid structures that practically force readers to continue turning pages. Even his lesser works tend to have plots that are more raw momentum than anything else. It’s a pity, then, that his posthumously published Pirate Latitudes is so poorly plotted. It’s a book full of barely sketched-in vignettes starring privateers who barely deserve to be called one-dimensional.
Latitudes takes its sweet time to get going, but thoroughly describing his settings, the better to situate his characters within them, is a Crichton trademark. After 50 pages or so, Crichton has neatly set up the book’s roguish hero, Charles Hunter, and his mission—steal a treasure ship out from under the nose of the Spanish war machine. As Hunter wanders 1660s Port Royal in search of the exact right crew to carry out his improbable plan, the book seems like it will be a fun swashbuckler riff crossed with a heist tale.
However, the book gets bogged down in an endless string of sketches designed to show Hunter and his fellow sailors at their daring best. Instead of creating a sense of momentum, the book presents lots of smaller stories that never add up to a larger one. Hunter is assailing the Spanish, yes, but he’s also battling Indians, creatures of the deep, and the wiles of the many women of the Caribbean. Every time the story gets going, Crichton wraps up the action just as quickly as it began.
Thus the burden of the book falls on the characters. Crichton’s best characters have always been scientists who mostly exist to provide tons of exposition. There are no such information engines here, and Latitudes falls back on a series of stock types that were already old in the days of the earliest pirate tales. Particularly bad are the book’s women, who are all either ruffians or mouthy brats, and all seem to speak in the same cadence. Perhaps it’s fitting that the press notes for Pirate Latitudes work so hard to make the case for Crichton’s influence on American pop culture, because the book itself does a poor job of making any sort of argument in his favor.