Tom Clancy: Great Stories With Surprising, True Heroes

Tom Clancy, author of dozens of mega-million best-sellers sharpened by his knowledge of high-tech military gadgetry that often made him seem like a prescient consultant of the future, died at 66 this week, just as his next best-seller (no question about it) that features his hero Jack Ryan was set to be published in December.

By profession, Clancy was an insurance man, although, after his success, he often liked to dress in a style that screamed ex-military, even though illness kept him from serving. What he ended up being was neither insurance man nor intelligence officer nor GI Joe, but the kind of writer of block-buster novels that endeared him to millions of readers, probably most of whom are men.

With his money, he managed at one point to buy a tank all his own, and I supposed he was entitled. He probably would be the first to say he wasn’t writing literature, but he does belong right up there, in contemporary terms, with Stephen King, John Grisham, and later David Baldacci and others, even Joe Patterson, who is not so much an author but a machine and a factory all rolled into one.

Clancy’s first book, about a rogue Soviet submarine on the loose in the dark days of the Cold War during the Reagan Administration was published by the Naval Institute Press, a small publishing house located fittingly in Annapolis, specializing in naval history of all sorts, but never in fiction. Clancy’s price for “The Hunt For the Red October” was $5,000, which wouldn’t cover train fare to a submarine base in California these days.

Lots of folks discovered Clancy, including President Ronald Reagan, who put it on his reading list. Clancy never had to sell another insurance policy after that. “Red October” was made into a major Hollywood movie that starred Alec Baldwin, and Sean Connery as the Russian sub commander. It was the kind of movie Hollywood did really well—not so far removed from humanity like the Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis movies of the time, let alone Chuck Norris. It was filled with action, populated with interesting characters, starring top stars and made with no expenses paid. You didn’t have to be embarrassed watching them.

This is something Clancy’s work had in common with that of King and Grisham—their books made great thoroughly professional and entertainingly first-class movies. Baldwin played Jack Ryan, and then gave up the part to Harrison Ford in two other excellent Clancy books that become films: “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” Later, Ben Affleck played a younger version of ryan with Morgan Freeman as his mentor, and Baltimore hit by a nuclear bomb in “The Sum of All Fears.” Chris Pine stars in “Jack Ryan: Shadow One,” opening December. Ryan, in subsequent novels, rose to become President of the United States.

Those books became great movies—as good as Stephen King’s many movie version of his novels (except for Nicholson in “The Shining”) as good as Grisham films of his books like “The Firm” or “The Pelican Brief.”

Clancy—like the best of story tellers if not the best writer like a Faulkner or even a King—invented a kind of history, a whole world that looked and sounded familiar, what with the weaponry, the conspiratorial battle of armies and intelligence services, and he created heroes who behaved like heroes.

That’s not a bad legacy.

There’s a picture in the Washington Post tribute which shows Clancy in a room thick with wall-to-wall books, reading one of them (we know not which). Chances are that the book was written by someone else, and so were the ones in the room. Patterson, on the other hand, could fill the room full of his own books, something that would probably never have occurred to Clancy.


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