Tom Clancy RIP

I was just reading Vince Flynn’s latest (and, unfortunately, due to his demise earlier this year, last) novel when I got to thinking of Tom Clancy, who died either last night or this morning. Clancy was an inspiration to Flynn (and many others) just as Flynn, whom I’ve met twice, was an inspiration for me. Flynn’s attitude was “If he could make it, so can I”. And he did, going on to write over a dozen thrillers, all of which made the best-sellers list.

But what got me to thinking was what set them apart. Flynn pretty much stuck to a tried and true formula, but Clancy dared to be quite a bit more original. His first two novels were classic Cold War stories, but for his third he shifted gears entirely and wrote a story about a highly personal battle between his Jack Ryan hero and a group of terrorists. And not just your run-of-the-mill Arab terrorists but instead Irish terrorists. That completed, his fourth novel went back to the Cold War and each side’s respective spying schemes to figure out the other’s latest efforts in creating a missile defense system. For his fifth novel, he changed course again and this time it featured a covert war against the drug lords in South America. But what made this tale different is that, for the first time, Clancy featured corruption in the US government as the president, having ordered the (unofficial) raids in the first place, then tried to cut all ties to them before their existence is made public.

My point in all this is that Clancy had a lot more versatility than your average author in this genre. He didn’t just write great submarine novels or spy novels, though he certainly did both. The only problem was that, after the Cold War was over, he seemed to have run out of realistic plots for his stories. And thus he spent much of the 90’s coming up with ever more grandiose, yet implausible, story lines. One such example featured a war declared by Japan on the USA in his 8th novel, Debt of Honor. Oh, his stories continued to be highly entertaining page turners with many of the ingredients Clancy fans had come to love, such as detailed descriptions of the latest military technology.

But, when all is said and done, he left quite a legacy. He, largely on his own, created an entire new genre in fiction, the techno-thriller, and then went on to establish himself as the grandmaster of the very genre he had just created.

15 Comments

  1. I READ the Hunt For Red October and couldn’t put it down. Then I heard his next book was Red Storm Rising and was disappointed. It started out OK, but then it became an inventory of AirForce, Army and Navy equipment that just happened to be in the right spot and the right time. It read like Clancy got a list of Military Hardware and wrote a story around the list. But I couldn’t figure out if his ego was look what I know, or he wrote an advertisement for the world military hardware and its use.

    At that point I felt he should have gone back to selling insurance. As quick as I read Red October, Red Storm was like plowing 10 acres of clay with a hand trowel.

  2. The Hunt for Red October was the first, and last, book by Mr Clancy that I read. It was a pretty good read. There were some parts of it that I found a bit implausible — besides the ending of the story itself – and he added some things which were definitely different from the public versions of intelligence that were available at the time.

  3. Well, that’s what happens when you type, cut, and paste too fast without proofreading first. The last sentence in Paragraph 3 reads:

    Oh, his stories continued to be highly entertaining page turners with many of the ingredients Clancy fans had come to love, such as detailed descriptions of the latest military technology.

    That SHOULD be:

    Oh, his stories continued to be highly entertaining page turners with many of the ingredients Clancy fans had come to love, such as detailed descriptions of the latest military technology, but they had lost much of their real world credibility. In contrast, Vince Flynn, while his stories were much more narrow in scope, never let his plots run too far out of the realm of believability.

  4. At that point I felt he should have gone back to selling insurance.

    Seriously, would YOU have? Clancy hit a gold mine, making millions per book and even more with the movie versions.

    That said, Red Storm Rising was one of my favorites. It was also one of his most realistic. Written in the mid-80′s, a war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO seemed eminently plausible. And the detail was incredible. It covered the war from every possible angle, from the Stealth Fighters (he got some of the facts wrong, but the basic tactics right) to the Battle of the North Atlantic featuring submarines, Navy and Air Force planes, and even tank warfare in Germany. His idea of having the Soviets conquer Iceland to control the sea lanes was brilliant. IMHO, definitely one of his best efforts.

  5. There was a lot of talk in the mid 1980s about the possibility of a non-nuclear war between the USSR and NATO, the idea being that the huge Soviet advantage in conventional military might would enable them to invade West Germany through the Fulda Gap and quickly overrun Germany and even parts of France, while the United States might choose not to use nuclear weapons to respond, because that would mean the destruction of the US through Soviet retaliation. The lopsided SALT II agreement to which Jimmy Carter, our second-worst President — Barack Hussein Obama has now beat him out for the bottom slot — as well as Mr Carter’s milquetoast responses to the seizure of our embassy in Tehran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led a lot of people to believe that, with the wrong man as our President, such could have happened, if enough of the Soviet leadership felt they could get away with it.

    Fortunately, the USSR was rotting from within, which is what happens eventually to state-run economies.

  6. DNW, it doesn’t matter which one you read, a day or two later they seem to blend together into one amorphous memory, different in detail but so familiar in theme and structure as to render distinctions of all sorts vague and tangential. Better than formula writing but certainly cut from the same cloth.

  7. Clancy lived in the Greater Baltimore Area. He started selling insurance in Columbia, MD
    Article in today’s Baltimore Sun

    Clancy invented ‘techno-thriller,’ reflected Cold War fears

    ‘Red October’ author parlayed book success into films, video games

    By Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun
    9:35 p.m. EDT, October 2, 2013

    Tom Clancy didn’t realize he was forever changing the spy novel back in 1982, while working in obscurity on his first book, a Cold War thriller centering on the defection of a Soviet naval captain and the technologically advanced submarine he includes in the bargain.

    But then “The Hunt for Red October” was published, and things would never be the same — not for spy fiction, which was given new life by the detail-obsessed “techno-thriller” genre he invented, and certainly not for Clancy, who seemingly out of nowhere became one of the country’s most prominent authors. Over the next three decades, the Baltimore native would not only write a series of best-selling novels but also see them form the basis of a successful movie franchise and inspire a run of best-selling video games.

    Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/arts/bs-md-clancy-appreciation-20131002,0,7690859.story#ixzz2ghzfjwAD

    And FWIW, I was in Columbia, MD today.

  8. That said, Red Storm Rising was one of my favorites. It was also one of his most realistic. Written in the mid-80′s, a war between the Warsaw Pact and NATO seemed eminently plausible. And the detail was incredible. It covered the war from every possible angle, from the Stealth Fighters (he got some of the facts wrong, but the basic tactics right) to the Battle of the North Atlantic featuring submarines, Navy and Air Force planes, and even tank warfare in Germany. His idea of having the Soviets conquer Iceland to control the sea lanes was brilliant. IMHO, definitely one of his best efforts.

    What I’m saying is Clancy would get so obsessed with Hardware Details you could easily get sidetracked from the plot. Like his detail on the ship from the LYKES LINE. But then again there were plenty of ships in the Port of Baltimoe from the LYKES LINE that my mind was sidetracked to the Harbor nearby since I’ve seen all kinds of different shipping lines. LYKES stood out since they were painted Black. Which sidetracked my mind to the song Paint It Black.

  9. What I’m saying is Clancy would get so obsessed with Hardware Details you could easily get sidetracked from the plot.

    But that’s one of the things a lot of guys LIKED about his books. Prior to him, a lot of books in that genre were often pretty sloppy about basic facts – you had carriers that were nearly a mike long or fighters that could go Mach 5. But Clancy not only got the details of the hardware right, but also the tactics, too. He seemed to be especially knowledgeable about submarine warfare and a lot of readers appreciated the realism.

    That, and as I mentioned above, he could mix things up and not just write about the same thing book after book. That’s what set him apart from lesser writers in the genre. I like Vince Flynn, too, but he takes fewer chances, and therefore there’s a sense of “Read one, read ‘em all” to a lot of his books.

  10. Michener was a formula writer in his historical novel. Just enough details to keep in 99% historically correct. What he did a lot was build the novel on usually three different wealth strata. He would get historic events mostly correct, but build it around his families. Take two in particular CENTENNIAL and CHESAPEAKE. In each he had a lineage of those getting by, middle class and upper class. Each started in the 17th or 18th century and went from there. The MD upperclass lived on a large island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay that was 300 acres at the beginning, and was swallowed by the bay at the end. And thus was the history of Poplar Island in real time.

  11. Oops, typo:

    This: you had carriers that were nearly a mike long or fighters that could go Mach 5

    Should obviously be this: you had carriers that were nearly a mile long or fighters that could go Mach 5

  12. Yorkshire quotes:

    “But then “The Hunt for Red October” was published, and things would never be the same — not for spy fiction, which was given new life by the detail-obsessed “techno-thriller” genre he invented, and certainly not for Clancy, who seemingly out of nowhere became one of the country’s most prominent authors. Over the next three decades, the Baltimore native would not only write a series of best-selling novels but also see them form the basis of a successful movie franchise and inspire a run of best-selling video games.”

    I’m not certain and don’t feel interested enough to research it, but I would be willing to bet that Clancy’s “invention” was basically the transposition of John Keegan’s groundbreaking historical technique first revealed in “The Face of Battle” in 1976, to a “contemporary” military setting.

    Keegan, readers of his books will recall, narrowed in on the down and dirty, including”technical” details, of combat in a way that historians generally hadn’t [Our American historians' familiar references to the effects of rifling, the development of breach loading mechanisms and minnie balls; or British references to the long bow, may constitute a partial exception] unless they were writing monographs.

    Even those narrow works were usually accorded a kind of secondary status. I remember wandering the stacks at just about or before the time Clancy first published, and stumbling across all kinds of short books published in the late 19th century featuring extensive and detailed plates illustrating military equipage of various epochs. It didn’t strike me as interesting at the time, and was moreover the kind of thing you almost didn’t want to be seen looking at, as if it was a kind of military pornography for unintelligent students.

    Keegan changed that perception by demonstrating how the interface of humans with specific accoutrements and arms and the environment itself, had real operational, and thus profound historical, consequences.

    In other words then, in my estimation, what Clancy did was to simply appropriate the then novel aspect and focus of Keegan’s famous historical work, i.e., military technology, and the close up workings of the men using and directing it within specific contexts, and transpose the approach to a fictional work in a contemporaneous setting.

    That’s my guess, anyway.

    Oh, it strikes me that Morison’s Admiral of the Ocean Sea has in it’s depth of description and it’s analysis of nautical technology and its use, some of these same attributes.

    I wonder if Clancy had read that.

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