Like the dinosaurs he created in Jurassic Park, or the mutating virus at the centre of The Andromeda Strain, Michael Crichton is back from the dead. The late author will mount a final assault on the best-seller lists from beyond the grave.
Crichton, who died of cancer in November aged 66, left a treasure trove of work on his personal computer, his estate revealed yesterday. The valuable cache includes a completed historical thriller and roughly a third of a new science-fiction novel. Both will be released over the next 18 months, with the first novel, an adventure story called Pirate Latitudes set in 17th-century Jamaica, hitting stores in time for Christmas.
"Pirate Latitudes is obviously unedited, but the book is complete, and it will all be his own work," said Julia Wisdom, Crichton's UK publisher at HarperCollins. "Like all of his work, he wrote it in secret. He would have these extraordinary ideas, which he'd keep under his hat, before springing them on us when the manuscript was completed."
The new novel features a pirate named Hunter, the governor of Jamaica, and a plan to raid a Spanish treasure galleon. Though it marks a departure from Crichton's trademark science fiction, his US publisher, Jonathan Burnham, said it would be written with his customary eye for factual accuracy. "It's eminently and deeply and thoroughly researched," he told The New York Times, adding that in keeping with its potential blockbuster status, HarperCollins planned an initial print run of one million copies.
"It's packed through with great detail about navigation and how pirates operated, and links between the New World and the Caribbean and Spain."
When Mr Crichton died, he was half way through a two-book deal to write technological thrillers. The second of those novels is a third completed, with the plot outlines in copious notes. His estate plans to select a co-writer to finish the project. "We want a high-level thriller writer, somebody who understands Michael's work," Mr Burnham said. "From what I gather, there are notes and indications of which direction the novel was going, so the writer has material to work from apart from the actual material that was finished."
The discovery of fresh work by Crichton represents a shot in the arm for his publishers, and will be watched closely by Hollywood. In addition to selling more than 150 million books worldwide, he was also an Emmy-winning screenwriter and producer who created the hit TV series ER.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of his novel Jurassic Park, about a scientist who manages to clone dinosaurs using DNA frozen in amber, and attempts to create a theme park, won three Oscars.
Although fans will be pleasantly surprised by news that he had several "secret" works in the pipeline, close colleagues say they were not surprised that Crichton had kept details of the project to himself. Lynn Nesbit, his agent for 40 years, said he was "the most private of all authors that I have ever met in my life." He never showed her any material before he had a complete draft. Aside from knowing that it was in the general category of "technological thriller," she had no idea what the incomplete novel was about.
She added that Crichton left "many, many electronic files", and said she was in the early stages of combing through them with his widow, Sherri. "We haven't begun to really go through it all," she said.
The publishing industry has recently made considerable sums by releasing new work inspired by deceased authors such as Robert Ludlum, author of the books that inspired the Bourne films, or Ian Fleming, whose James Bond franchise was recently revived in the hands of Sebastian Faulks. But HarperCollins said they are not planning to use Mr Crichton's name to create a franchise using ghost-writers. "We're not taking a name brand and spinning books out of it," said a spokesman.