Literature for Life: The Obsessive Accuracy of Tom Clancy

There is a derogatory tone people have towards airplane novels. In fact, that nomenclature is inherently derogatory. But, there is nothing wrong with pop and sugar. Not everything could be as dense as Joan Didion or Philip Roth. So this month, Man of the Hour is celebrating these types of books by looking at the best of them; Tom Clancy. Then we look at four different book series to be read during that long flight on the plane because there is nothing wrong with that.

Author Profile: Tom Clancy: Tom Clancy may have died three years ago at the age of 66 but it certainly has not felt that way. Clancy’s name has become a brand; a brand that can be seen on movies, videos games and novels. His name is ubiquitous with highly taut and precise military thrillers the way Starbucks is ubiquitous with coffee.

Yet, Clancy has never been part of any division of the military. When he tried to enlist into the ROTC, he was turned away because of his nearsightedness. Yet, his novels have been praised, along for its pulse pumping action, for its pinpoint military accuracy. Navy Secretary, John Lehman is said to have said about Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October, “Who the hell cleared it?”

The accuracy and precision of military technology that has become associated with Clancy was not because he had any access to classified information. Rather, it was his keen interest and obsessive collecting that fueled his research. From young age, Clancy read about naval history and engineering papers that were meant for people in the trade. “I read papers, watch CNN… It’s all in the open. You just have to know where to look,” Clancy said when asked about how he conducts his research.

That accuracy allowed him to sell his first book, The Hunt for Red October, to the Navy Institute Press, while working in an insurance agency founded by his wife’s grandfather. The manuscript was sold for a mere $5,000 but went on to sell more than 3 million copies worldwide. This is coming from the expectation that good sale numbers would be 5,000.

The book did not become a big hit until a Time Magazine article covering the book mentioned that Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, verbally gave the book an endorsement by calling it, “the perfect yarn.” In fact, the book made its rounds around the conservative circle at the time. As it turns out, Michael Deaver, a Reagan confidante had discovered the book and began distributing around the White House and word of mouth quickly spread.

The book was the first to feature Clancy’s CIA analyst and all-around renaissance man, Jack Ryan, who would go on to be the main character of 9 out of Clancy’s 20 novels. Ryan was the perfect 1980’s action hero in a world of competency created by Clancy. Ryan is virtuous in his rational decision-making, his faithfulness to his wife and true American values. What is more surprising is that he is surrounded by higher-ups who are as competent and as good hearted as he is. In portraying these characters, Clancy wrote with the philosophy that, “You don’t pick generals off a park bench… They are experts at what they do and there are a lot of thinking that goes into it.”

The CIA and the American government that Clancy portrayed is filled with optimism that fits perfectly with the Reagan-era politics. In The Hunt for Red October, Ryan must use his calmness and rational thinking to communicate with a Soviet submarine commander who wants to defect to the United States. The main characters in government being the symbol of courage and American values is comforting. Add that to suspenseful action, then you get the perfect cocktail of the airplane novel; a novel so engrossing that it would make a flight metaphorically fly by. Jack Ryan would go on to be played by four different actors, including Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford, over five different films, all based on Clancy’s novels.

The most underappreciated part about Clancy’s career was his ability to go beyond the traditional boundaries of just being a novelist. He was a personality and a name. With that name, he was invited to do interviews on CNN and other news sources as a pundit about the military and intervention. But, for most people below a certain age, Clancy is a name associated with video games.

Clancy was always extolling the virtues of progressing technology and knowledge. In the 90’s he was very impressed with the first-person shooter The Colony created by David Smith. He liked it so much, he invested into Smith’s 3D tools company, Virtus. That spun out to Clancy finding the video game development studio Red Storm. The company used the intellectual property of Clancy as they created computer simulators based on The Hunt for Red October, but their first success was based on the FBI Hostage Rescuing squad called Rainbow Six.

It would have been easy for Clancy to sit back while these games were developing, but early on Clancy was hands on with the development. “I wanted a different way in which to tell my stories. Coming up with concepts for computer games gave me an another avenue of creative expression,” Clancy said in an interview with GameSpy. That same obsession with accuracy in military technology and protocol translated into the games. He gave the development teams valuable military contacts and access to years of scrupulous research. Since the 90’s, the Tom Clancy brand of games have sold millions of copies including Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell.

What made Clancy such an enjoyable writer to read was despite the subject matter of war and terrorism, he was an optimist. So often, pop culture is bogged down by the troubles of government conspiracies and the boggling of international relations due to bureaucracy. Here is one writer whose deference to those who are there to protect us actually wrote about people protecting us. It’s comforting especially 10,000 miles up in the air.

Rest in peace, Tom Clancy.


One Shot by Lee Child: There was a small controversy when Tom Cruise was tapped to play Jack Reacher. That’s because Lee Child’s conception of the character was one of an unstoppable force. He is the modern day wandering cowboy. With no set home, Reacher goes from town to town solving crimes with his own particular brand of justice. One Shot is probably the best of Lee Child’s popular Jack Reacher series and it was the one that was picked to be adapted into a movie by Cruise and his company two years ago. This is the type of gripping, sugary novel that is sometimes needed. There is nothing better than well done pop and Child is one of the best at it.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum: Was Ludlum doing a poor man’s John le Carre? Sure. Has the movie series effective replaced the book series? Probably. But, the first novel (cannot say the same about its sequels) is a really good spy thriller that is so much of its time. Released in 1980, the novel owes a lot to the paranoid feeling people had in the government at the time. Movies like Three Days to the Condor and Parallax View speaks to that nature of paranoia to the government. In fact, the novel is based on a real government program in which the government would take homeless people and feed them LSD, called the Project MKUltra. Ludlum writes appealingly with his action and slightly problematic romance but there is no doubt the influence this book has on American spy thrillers to come.  

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane: Dennie Lehane has made a career writing mind bending endings that makes you want to shower and speak in a Bahston accent for weeks to come. Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series about Southie P.I.s is no different. A Drink Before the War is the first book in the series about a mystery that goes all the way to the top of course. There seems to be hints of exploitation in the novel as Lehane has no qualms with going there, but this book flies through. It is gripping, grimy and filled with the thing you need most with a detective series; appealing detectives.

I is for Innocent by Sue Grafton: As of this writing, Sue Grafton has just released X. I guess Grafton could not figure out what X is for. But, the Kinsey Millhone alphabet series has been a consistent mystery series that keeps up with quality despite the large quantity of books there needs to be. The best of the series is probably I is for Innocent, released in 1992. There is a reemergence of the true crime drama in the public consciousness about whodunit. But, here is a series with all of those gratifications without anyone actually dying. Grafton has the rare ability to balance so many characters while never losing any of them in the juggling act. Reading the series however, I have to ask Grafton whether or not she has a problem with hotel managers. Why are all of them such creeps?