If nothing else, Pirate Latitudes is a reminder of the importance of picking an ironclad password for your computer. This 17th-century seafaring adventure was discovered after Michael Crichton's death, buried like Blackbeard's treasure in one of the author's hard drives. Nobody at his publishing house, HarperCollins, can say when it was written, or why Crichton decided to abandon it, but it's the last completed work of fiction by the man who gave the world Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain.
Crichton's great talent was writing books that were virtually impossible to put down, even when they were bad. Pirate Latitudes is no exception. The plot sucks you in like the giant kraken monster that nearly sinks our hero's galleon as he's being chased by a Spanish warship. Capt. Charles Hunter is the protagonist, a swashbuckling rake from the Massachusetts Bay Colony (with a degree from a new college called Harvard) who is bumming around Jamaica looking for trouble when he hears about a boatload of Spanish booty waiting to be stolen. This being a Crichton novel, Hunter promptly assembles a crackerjack team of ''privateers'' an eagle-eyed helmsman named Enders, the master assassin Sanson, an explosives expert nicknamed simply ''The Jew'' and sails off to raid King Philip's coffers. Along the way he rescues a comely kidnapped Englishwoman from island cannibals, crosses swords with a sadistic villain called Cazalla, and outflanks Spanish gunships with bold tactical maneuvers that would leave Jack Sparrow gasping.
When it comes to sharp, slick techno-thrillers that you can polish off on a flight to Chicago, there's never been anybody better. But a hackneyed historical novel filled with bosomy maidens and blustery old navy dialogue (''Mizzen top blown!'') is not what Crichton should be remembered for. This is one chestful of doubloons that should have been left hidden in the sand. C