Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pirate Latitudes is Classic Crichton

On Monday, I finally finished reading the last novel of Michael Crichton, Pirate Latitudes. It was published in November 2009 (though I just bought a used hardcover copy about a week ago), after being discovered in Crichton's files after he had passed away the previous year. There was dispute about whether he wanted it published, as some have claimed that he had written that story in the 1970s. He was working on a new novel and wrote a third of it when cancer finally took him at age 66. This novel, called Micro, is due in bookstores this November. A ghostwriter was hired by Crichton's publishers to finish the novel, since Crichton had notes and outlines for the entire novel. I haven't decided if I'm going to read it or not. A ghostwriter finishing up a dead novelist's work doesn't sit right with me. On the other hand, perhaps he had wanted to finish this novel. Wouldn't it be cool if the soul of Crichton was channeled by the ghostwriter to complete this novel on his behalf?!?

Officially, though, Pirate Latitudes will be known as his last completed novel. I read Crichton for the first time in 1993, when I checked out his novel Rising Sun from the library at the Paradiso complex where I lived in La Maddalena, Sardinia. That novel was released a year earlier and became a best seller amid the political firestorm about Japanese business practices and trade between the U.S. and Japan. As I read the novel, I was simultaneously "offended" by the anti-Japanese views and "intrigued." I could not put the book down and ended up reading it in 4 days time. I devoured it, completely. I liked his writing style, when I was in Naples for my eye appointment, I bought two other of his novels (in paperback) at the Stars and Stripes bookstore at the Navy base. Those novels were Jurassic Park and Congo. I loved both and still wanted more. My dad sent me paperbacks of The Andromeda Strain and Sphere. In 1994, when Disclosure came out, the Yeoman chief I had worked for in 1993 bought a copy of the novel for me. This one hit a little too close to home for me (its about a guy who was sexually harassed by a woman, which people found absurd at the time, but I can attest that its a real issue). Once I returned stateside and had easy access to English language bookstores, I fell into the habit of buying a Crichton novel the day of publication and rushing home to read it. I usually was able to finish reading his novels within a few days time.

These novels included the sequel to Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1995) and Airframe (1996). Timeline came out in 1999, when I was nearing the end of my college studies. I got that one for Christmas and read it during the first week of my internship in D.C. in 2000. I received Prey for Christmas in another year. This was the first Crichton novel to use First Person Point of View, which changed the dynamic of his story telling. It was also difficult for me to get into. I read half of it before losing interest, then finishing it a year or so later. Another Christmas (2004?), I received State of Fear, his anti-global warming novel. In 2006, I bought and read Next, though it was the most difficult one to follow since he had so many characters that it made things hard to follow.

Since 1993, Michael Crichton had been my favourite writer. Obviously...since I had to read every one of his novels. While waiting for his next releases, I read some of his older novels, including A Case of Need, which he wrote under a pseudonym, Travels (his non-fiction, which covered some of his unique travel experiences), The Terminal Man and The Great Train Robbery. The only one I have not read is his Eaters of the Dead, which is his retelling of the Beowulf tale. What I love about his novels is the characteristic Crichton "formula": take a bunch of characters (generally scientists of some sort) and put them into strange situations. Hell breaks loose, usually because technology failed, and characters start dying. When I first started reading Crichton, his style reminded me of a book I had read as a child that went along the lines of, "What good luck...., what bad luck...., what good luck..., what bad luck..." In each case, something good would happen to the character. Then something bad would happen because of it. Then something good comes out of that. Back and forth until the end. Crichton's formula is a constant yo-yo action, like this.

Sometime in the 1990s, I had an idea for a Crichton-esque novel to write for myself. I'm not sure I could pull it off, but I think the story idea shows promise. It requires a lot of research, though. The risk in writing it and possibly finding a publisher / agent for it, though, means being pigeon-holed in that genre. I'm more of a literary fiction, character-development kind of writer, whereas, Crichton is a plot-driven novelist with a visualization meant for the silver screen. There's no surprise to anyone that his novels seem ready-made for the movies and many adaptations have been made from his novels. I read online that Steven Spielberg had bought the rights to Pirate Latitudes and plans to make this film for a summer of 2014 release. Nothing spells "blockbuster" more than a Spielberg and Crichton combination! Though I fell asleep watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and never bothered to watch the three sequels, I will see Pirate Latitudes in theaters.

Pirate Latitudes is about a "privateer" named Charles Hunter, who grew up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and went to Harvard (in the early days). The year is 1665. Hunter seeks to fulfill the mother of all raids: stealing a Spanish ship from the bay of a Caribbean island named Matanceros. The ship holds a treasure trove of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies in South America, bound for Spain and the Court of King Philip. Other characters include a Jewish man, often referred to as "the Jew", who acts as the appraiser of any valuable minerals; a female pirate who loves to bare her breasts during an attack to confuse the enemy; a big, dark skinned Nubian who is referred to as "the Moor" (the guy from The Green Mile would be perfect in this role); a Frenchman whom Hunter doesn't seem to trust; a Governor of Jamaica, who commissions the raid; a newly arrived personal aide to the Governor who is somewhat of a Puritan moralist; the personal aide's wife, who has lusty designs on Hunter; a pretty, young female prisoner who proves useful, and a brutal Spanish captain.

This novel has adventure on the high seas, storming a fort, stealing ships, battles at sea, hurricanes, cannibals, and even a terrifying sea creature straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The creature is called "kraken" and is a strange mix of octopus and squid. Its part of the mythology of the seas. By the time I got to that part of the book, I thought it was stretching the credibility of the story. However, I did a Google search and read that "kraken" is a common device used in stories involving sailors and the sea.

The story was non-stop intensity. I simply could not put the book down. I also could not believe that I had waited so long to buy and read it. I only bought it about a week ago, because I finally found a used hardcover for just $9.95 (brand new, it was $27.99). Crichton is only one of a few novelists where I like having books in hardcover. I prefer trade paperback editions, but Crichton novels are not released in trade paperback and I hate mass market paperback (the kind you find on racks in the drugstore or airport bookstores). Besides, I have nearly all of Crichton's novels in hardcover, so it looks nice on a shelf.

Pirate Latitudes made me wince quite a few times, from the descriptions of the violence (plenty of slit throats, beheadings, and other body parts getting wasted), but in terms of story, this was Crichton's best since Timeline. If its true that he wrote this novel in the 1970s, I'm stunned why he never bothered to submit it for publication. This is a top-rate Crichton story, not some throw-away. If a non-pirates fan like me can get into this book, anyone who loves pirates will undoubtedly love this novel. Portland, interestingly enough, has a pirate subculture. Every year, there's a pirates festival. I've never gone, because like I said...I've never been into pirates and don't understand the appeal. This novel helped me to understand a little bit. Can't wait for the movie!

In the meantime, maybe I will put the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy in my Netflix queue to watch a triple feature sometime this summer. Another aspect of having just finished reading this novel is that I wish I could go on a Caribbean cruise soon so I can see some of these islands for myself. I've only been to Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1995. I'd like to see Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Haiti, Bahamas (not really the Caribbean, though), Bermuda, Barbados, St. Martin / Sint Maarten, Aruba, and Trinidad & Tobago. Someday, perhaps... Now, its on to the next novel on my reading list: the fourth volume in John Burdett's excellent crime series featuring a Buddhist cop in Thailand (the Bangkok 8 series). This new novel is called The Godfather of Kathmandu. A new hardcover novel will be released soon, but I only buy these in paperback.

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