R.I.P. Tom Clancy

Tom Clancy once dismissed the glorification of war as “the ultimate pornography,” which probably surprised some fans of the author’s best-selling, meticulously researched novels about the military and intelligence communities. Although Clancy seldom wrote about all-out war—his second novel, 1986’s Red Storm Rising, imagined a war between the Soviet Union and NATO, and 2000’s The Bear And The Dragon pitted Russia against China—his many immensely popular novels were known for celebrating a robust military and crack intelligence network. Tom Clancy may not have written pornography, but his deep bibliography qualified as soft-core.

Although his work made him a friend of the military and intelligence communities, Clancy never served in either. Born in Baltimore in 1947, he famously worked as an insurance salesman while writing his first, and still best-known, novel, The Hunt For Red October. He sold the book—about a top-secret Russian submarine, its commander who wants to defect, and a CIA analyst named Jack Ryan—for a paltry $5,000 to an obscure publisher that had never released a novel before. The company printed 14,000 copies for its first run in 1984, one of which made its way to President Ronald Reagan. A Time magazine article quoted him praising it as “the perfect yarn,” which led to an invitation to the White House. Tom Clancy’s life as an insurance salesman was over.

Two years later, he published Red Storm Rising, then a slew of bestsellers in quick succession: Patriot Games, about vengeful Irish terrorists, in 1987; the Red October sequel The Cardinal Of The Kremlin in 1988; Clear And Present Danger, about the drug war, in 1989; and The Sum Of All Fears, about terrorists attacking the Super Bowl, in 1991. Most of them featured Clancy’s leading man, Jack Ryan, whose career progressed over the course of the author’s subsequent books. Almost all of those early novels were made into films, with Jack Ryan portrayed by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and now Chris Pine for the upcoming Jack Ryan: Shadow One.

Red October and Red Storm Rising earned Clancy the designation as a Cold War author, which proved hard to shake even after the fall of the Soviet Union and Clancy’s many subsequent novels about other topics. Post-USSR, Clancy advocated helping our former enemies, telling Larry King in 2000, “The Soviet Union is dead and gone and replaced by the Russian Federation, which is a country we can be friends with now, thank God. And we want the Russians to prosper and should help the Russians prosper in every way we can within reason.” That feeling informed The Bear And The Dragon, in which the U.S. aids Russia against China.

If anything, terrorism was the common thread in Clancy’s work; even the USSR/NATO war in Red Storm Rising is precipitated by a terrorist attack on a Soviet oil facility. Terrorism came in many forms in his books, from the Irish nationalists in Patriot Games to the Islamic fanatics in The Sum Of All Fears, to a Japanese lone wolf in 1994’s Debt Of Honor. That novel earned the dubious distinction of “predicting” 9/11, in that it entailed someone flying a plane into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress. In the wake of 9/11, Clancy was a frequent guest on news-panel shows, where he was known to criticize the media and left-wing lawmakers for weakening the intelligence community.

In the ’90s, Clancy went from bestselling author—only J.K. Rowling and John Grisham sold as many books—to empire-builder that was worth an estimated $300 million at his death. In 1996, he launched Red Storm Entertainment to produce video-game versions of his novels and characters, which led to a slew of videogames, and novelizations of videogames, and an eventual buyout by publisher Ubisoft in 2000. (The company still makes games using Clancy’s name.) Clancy also started two paperback series, Tom Clancy’s Op-Center and Tom Clancy’s Net Force (which included a young-adult spinoff) that used his name but were actually written by ghost writers.

Clancy also put his vast knowledge of the military to use in non-fiction, penning a number of “guided tour” books that took readers into submarines, air force combat wings, the special forces, and others. His “study in command” books, co-written with military officials, examined facets of Gulf War combat and offered treatises on military best practices (as in Battle Ready, his 2004 quasi-biography of Marine general Tony Zinni).

At the time of his death, Clancy was preparing a new Jack Ryan novel, Command Authority, written with frequent collaborator Mark Greaney. The book, due out December 3, revisits a familiar foe: the Russians, under the thumb of a new strongman.

It’s a fitting bookend to Clancy’s career, which began with a novel about a sophisticated Russian submarine and a perceptive CIA analyst who has a wild theory about the sub’s commander. Command Authority’s description says only Jack Ryan knows the truth about the Russian strong man’s dark past, which plays to the one thing Tom Clancy truly glorified: information. “America is the most inventive country in the world,” he once said. “Why? Because everybody has access to information. In the Soviet Union, it was illegal to take a photograph of a train station. Look what happened to them. They tried to classify everything. The more information available to the average person, the greater synergy that develops from it.”

Tom Clancy died in his Baltimore hometown Tuesday at 66 of unknown causes. He is survived by his wife and four children. 

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