Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Morituri Non Cognant (Those Who Are About To Die, Just Don't Know)

"Beware the fury of a patient man."

"If the world made sense, we'd all have to find honest work."

"What had she seen in the face of this man? It took her a moment to answer the question. Death was what she'd seen. Controlled. Planned. Disciplined. But it was still Death, living in the mind of a man."

Last week saw the passing of spy novelist Tom Clancy, who burst onto the scene with the nuclear sub thriller The Hunt For Red October and went on to write a series of thrillers about CIA analyst Jack Ryan and field man John Clark. Clancy was a giant in the industry, writing epic, sprawling storylines that resulted in big books (the longer it seemed as he went along; you could use these as a blunt object to kill someone). Clancy would weave in current events into his novels, tackling Irish terrorism, space based warfare, drug empires, nuclear terrorism, and the tensions of the Middle East through his writing.

He had a knack for seeing the future- one of his books ended in the crash of a passenger jet into the Capitol Building, years before 9/11. He walked with political leaders and military officers, forming friendships along the way, and writing compelling non-fiction with some of the latter. His eyesight prevented him from military service, but in the end he found himself well connected in that world, as he weaved stories that cast military officers in (mostly) a positive light, setting a clear line between good and evil. His Jack Ryan, his keystone character, was brilliant and principled, a flawed man at times, but always bound to his moral code and his loyalties. And Ryan was a true independent, not beholden to political parties, but to his own integrity. Several of Clancy's novels were adapted into movies, some of his offshoot work went into videogames, and he left his mark on the publishing world in different ways.

He was certainly an influence to me. I love the genre, so I was reading Clancy's novels early on- even before I understood the military terminology. And oh, was there terminology. Clancy was a technofreak who loved explaining how things worked. He'd stop in mid narrative and tell you how a plane flew, or the inner workings of a car, or the performance of a tank or frigate. This could be frustrating, mind you, for the reader, perhaps most glaringly in The Sum Of All Fears, when he spent an entire chapter describing the inner workings of a nuclear bomb at the very instant of detonation.

I liked those grand sprawling stories, that way of getting inside the heads of soldiers, spies, and the world of those who live in the rough side of things. Even when a book felt off- such as in Debt of Honor, which involved a war between America and Japan that started out with financial tactics- Clancy could still be compelling. His last three novels that left me fully satisfied followed that one. Executive Orders followed Ryan into a world he was unprepared for as the new President of the United States, and against an enemy willing to use biological warfare against America. Rainbow Six placed Clark at the head of a multinational counterterrorism team confronting perhaps the most chilling plot Clancy ever devised- a group of extremists seeking to wipe out almost all human life on the planet. And The Bear And The Dragon set Ryan and his allies into a land war in Asia, with China seeking to steal the mineral wealth of Siberia from Russia. In these books especially, Clancy had a gift for writing a story with the worst case scenario and running with it.

If only he had ended his writing days with The Bear And The Dragon.

His next work was a novel called Red Rabbit. Having written Jack Ryan into a corner as President, he went back in time, back to Jack's earliest days as an agent, tying it into the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II. There were troubling signs of what was to come: he was retconning his own work, ignoring continuity, putting more of a partisan political stance on things than he had in earlier work. The problem continued in his next novel, The Teeth Of The Tiger, in which he turned to Ryan's son Jack, becoming a member of an off the books black op organization with no formal ties to the government. This was the proverbial plummet off the cliff in terms of the books.  Jack Jr. just wasn't that interesting compared to earlier characters, and neither were the new characters Clancy was introducing.

After a gap of several years with no novels, Clancy came back, co-writing more stories of Jack Jr., with other authors, but the quality was gone. Even the older characters seemed a shadow of themselves. Cathy Ryan, Jack's wife and well rendered in the early books, seemed to be little more than a ghost of the person she had been. The political partisanship seemed more obvious in the narrative, and the tendency to ignore continuity showed itself in the new novels. It was discouraging, to say the least, to be disappointed time and again, and to come to the point where I expected to be disappointed. The spark was gone. It had become fiction by factory assembly.

I still love reading those earlier novels. Even the weaker ones drive the story along. It's a genre that I love to read, and he was a master at it when he was at the top of his game. And the idea of taking the worst case scenario and running wild with it, that's certainly something I've learned from him. Now that he's gone, I'll go back and re-read some of those early novels, ignore the later ones altogether.

Did you read any of his works?


  1. Tom Clancy is one of those names everyone knows, whether you've read his works or not. He'll definitely be missed in the literary world.

  2. I signed with Berkley not long after they acquired the paperback rights to his books. I only met him very briefly, once, but I heard a lot of stories around the editorial offices.

    He became a brand--literally--rather than an author after that long absence.

  3. I was rather surprised to hear of his death. Not sure why I guess I just assumed he was going to write books forever.

    cheers, parsnip

  4. I really like what Norma said - he really seemed to become more a 'name' than a novelist. But a giant in the literary world all the same, makes me want to read to earlier stuff now.

  5. I can't honestly say I've read any of his books, though I definitely think I should. I've definitely seen all the films, and I hate not having read the book that goes along. It certainly was sad to hear of Clancy's passing.

  6. @Kelly: he left a considerable impact.

    @Norma: that about sums it up.

    @Parsnip: he was younger than I expected.

    @Londonlulu: just stop the reading at Bear and the Dragon.

    @Meradeth: there is a lot more detail in those books.

  7. I read Sum of All Fears and remember that chapter explaining how the bomb works. It was interesting and a neat way to add suspense.

    This is by far not my favorite genre but it was obvious Clancy was good at it.

    Sorry to hear the quality of his work went down. It often does when a writer returns to the same well too many times.

  8. His books were always popular in the Navy libraries!
    Jane x

  9. His first book was the best IMO. After that, they all kind of blended together. I quit reading after about the fifth or sixth one.

    But then lots of authors seem to keep writing the same thing. When they put out that many books, guess they have to.

  10. I'd seen the name in print in bookstores and online, but I'd never read any of his books. However, I just realized from reading this post, I'll probably be pretty devastated if Stephen King passes. To me, there's just no replacement for certain authors. It sounds like Clancy was that for you as well.

    Sad news.

  11. I haven't read his books but I have seen his movies. I was shocked to hear he died because he wasn't that old.

  12. I've only read two of his books, first Red Storm Rising and second The Hunt For Red October, but not from a lack of desire. Red Storm Rising, although lacking a bit in characterization, was something I took with me everywhere and read every moment I could -- I found his knowledge and detail fascinating.

  13. One of P's favourite authors...up to the same point you mentioned William, sometimes its best to quit while you're on a high!

  14. I have not read Clancy's books, but I have seen the movies. Great stories!


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