Tom Clancy, R.I.P.
The master of modern spy thrillers leaves behind an impressive body of work.


It’s probably incorrect to call Tom Clancy, who died on Tuesday at the age of 66, the father of the modern political thriller. That honor should rightly go first to Ian Fleming, about whose James Bond novels little more need be said. Not only did Fleming create the most dashing British hero since Sherlock Holmes, he was also a pulp craftsman of no small literary gifts: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning,” runs the opening line of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale (1953), a beginning worthy of Melville.

Next comes Frederick Forsyth, whose 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal remains the gold standard for clandestine-world fiction, a gripping tale that has the reader rooting for a cold-blooded assassin, motivated solely by money, to put a bullet through the head of the father of modern France, Charles de Gaulle. Forsyth’s command of history and tradecraft gave the novel its realistic feel, and his inversion of the moral universe immediately distinguished the book from the competition. It would not be until the publication 13 years later of Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October that another work of spy fiction would have such an impact.

That book, you’ll recall, told the story of a rogue Soviet naval officer who hijacks his own submarine and precipitates an international incident. With the world on the brink of World War III, it’s left to the hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, to save the day by divining and then acting upon his educated guess that Captain Ramius is defecting, not attacking. But it wasn’t the story itself that rocketed Red October to the top of the best-seller lists. Clancy had never published fiction before — the novel had been rejected by the major publishing houses and was issued by the U.S. Naval Institute Press — but an astute editor saw the possibilities in his command of technology wedded to his narrative gifts. Red October wasn’t just fiction; it was really happening.

At first sales were modest, but then Clancy caught his big break: President Reagan touted it as his kind of yarn, and away it went. (Presidential endorsements mean a lot — JFK did the same thing for Fleming’s career.) Proving once again that, in publishing as in Hollywood, nobody knows anything, and that all the MBAs and business consultants in the world are useless when it comes to predicting the public’s taste, a book about the inner workings of a nuclear sub and the dusty lives of Agency analysts enthralled the reading public and launched Clancy on the career that lasted him an all-too-short lifetime.

Clancy went on to chronicle Ryan’s exploits in a series of novels, bucking him up from Company whiz kid to, eventually, president of the United States after a crazed Japanese pilot crashes a 747 into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress and decapitates the American government. As his plots began to diverge from the grippingly realistic world of Red October — in Debt of Honor (1994) he got the delivery mechanism, an airplane, right, but the foreign power wrong — his work to my mind became less interesting, although it still retained the inside-baseball, you-are-there feel that marked all his fiction. Still, it was never dull: After reading a Clancy novel, you felt like the national-security adviser yourself.

But Clancy’s real effect was on the generation of thriller writers that came after him, most notably Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn, who saw his you-are-there realism and raised it to a new level of both tradecraft and weapons, introducing their heroes (Scot Harvath and Mitch Rapp) not as analysts but as action figures, ready to fight and kill for God and Country and letting you know exactly how they do both. Islamic terrorists may have replaced the Russians and the Japanese as the current bêtes noires, but the appeal is the same: rough men standing ready to do violence to America’s enemies, in uncomfortably realistic, what-if settings. Can it happen here? You’re damn right it can.

And that’s also why Clancy, Flynn, Thor, and others have such a strong appeal to conservative audiences. Their heroes are not crippled by moral equivocation; they don’t try to see it the other guy’s way, unless they’re setting a trap for him. They dispatch America’s enemies with gusto, whether on the dusty streets of the ummah or in the back alleys of central Europe and East Asia. They are men of action — and they win, employing every technological trick in our nation’s arsenal to do so. They are Americans, as Americans used to be before the self-doubting poison of critical theory got injected into the body politic. They are us, as we can be again, once we eliminate it.

So it’s really no surprise that Clancy caught Reagan’s fancy. If James Bond was everything JFK wanted to be and mostly was — handsome, ruthless, cruel, and a relentless womanizer — so Jack Ryan was the Reaganesque ideal: smart, strong, brave, and patriotic. Clancy sensed the zeitgeist, grabbed it, and ran with it — we can win this thing was his message, and here’s how we do it. Forsyth’s Jackal, a master of disguise, forced us to admire a man we should despise, and made it hard to root for Lebel, the dogged Inspector Hound who eventually puts him down — the perfect tale for the age of the antihero. Tom Clancy restored heroism to its rightful place and begat a whole new tribe of men who combined the cunning and bravado of the Jackal with the moral strength and intellectual acumen of Jack Ryan. Every thriller writer owes him not only a debt of honor, but a debt of gratitude.

— Michael Walsh, a regular contributor to NRO, is the author of the “Devlin” series, including Hostile Intent, Early Warning, and Shock Warning (Pinnacle Books). He is currently completing the fourth work in the series.

Tom Clancy
Author Tom Clancy died Tuesday at age 66. The best-selling creator of dozens of military and political yarns such as The Hunt for Red October was well-known to millions of readers. Here’s a look back at his career.
Clancy is often credited with popularizing the “techno-thriller” genre, action stories with a heavy emphasis on detailed descriptions of military hardware and intelligence operations. He also portrayed the professionalism of the armed services in a way often lacking in other Cold War novels.
A prolific writer who ventured into video games and saw several of his books made into major motion pictures, Clancy produced 17 No. 1 New York Times bestsellers during his nearly three-decade career.
MAN OF LETTERS: Clancy was working as an insurance salesman when he sold his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, to the Naval Institute Press in 1983. Prior to buying Clancy's book, the publisher had never before handled a fiction novel. Pictured, Clancy in his insurance office in 1983.
Red October told the tale of a Soviet submarine commander who defects to the West with a super-secret nuclear missile boat. The book's other main character, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, would become a fixture of other Clancy novels.
Clancy’s follow-up novel, Red Storm Rising, charted the course of World War III after Muslim insurgents attack the Soviet Union's oil fields, precipitating an energy crisis that leads to war. It ranges wide across a European theater but, interestingly, never rises to nuclear exchange.
Among Clancy’s numerous other best-sellers were The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Without Remorse, The Teeth of the Tiger, and Against All Enemies. His most recent novel, Threat Vector, was published in December, 2012.
Clancy’s final book, Command Authority, will be published in December. The plot concerns Ryan dealing with a rising strong man in Russia — more shades of current headlines.
Clancy also lent his name to the Op-Center, Net Force, and Power Plays series of books, which were written by other authors.
The realism in Clancy’s novel sometimes presaged real-world events. In 1994's Debt of Honor — another Jack Ryan story, about a brief war between the U.S. and Japan — a rogue pilot crashes a 747 into the Capitol Building, a foreshadowing of sorts of the attacks on 9/11.
An enthusiastic supporter of the military, Clancy found a receptive audience for his books in conservative circles and in the armed forces, where his positive portrayal of uniformed servicemen and the military in general were well received.
Clancy’s in-depth knowledge of submarines and other military matters (both U.S. and Soviet) led him to also publish a number of non-fiction books on the American military.
MILITARY MOVIES: Several of Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels were made into motion pictures, beginning with 1990’s The Hunt for Red October, starring Sean Connery as Clancy’s Captain Marko Ramius and Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan.
For 1992’s Patriot Games, actor Harrison Ford stepped into the role of Jack Ryan, which saw the analyst tangle with a rogue IRA terrorist.
Ford returned in 1994's Clear and Present Danger, which explored the international cocaine trade.
The Jack Ryan movie franchise languished until being revived in 2002 with The Sum of All Fears, a re-casting of the story starring Ben Affleck as a younger Ryan. The film also took liberties with Clancy's plot, changing the villains from Muslim extremists to neo-Nazis.
FIRST-PERSON SHOOTERS: Clancy’s action-packed stories were a natural for adaptation into video games, and he co-founded the game company Red Storm Entertainment. Clancy helped create the successful Splinter Cell (picutred), Rainbow Six, and Ghost Recon game franchises, and oversaw numerous tie-in books.
ELDER STATESMAN: Clancy sometimes spoke on military affairs, trading on the reputation he earned from the extensive research he conducted in writing his novels. Pictured, Clancy at a 2004 conference hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.
His earnings allowed him to buy a house on Chesapeake Bay (pictured) and become part owner of the Baltimore Orioles.
The spoils of literary success: Clancy on his private indoor gun range.
Updated: Oct. 02, 2013



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