Feature

Tom Clancy, 1947–2013

The thriller writer who spoke the military’s language

Tom Clancy was a stickler for detail. His best-selling debut novel, 1984’s The Hunt for Red October, was crammed with so much technical information about Soviet submarines, satellites, weapons, and fighter planes that high-ranking members of the military wondered if the Maryland insurance salesman turned author had a spy inside the Pentagon. “When I met Navy Secretary John Lehman [in 1985],” he said, “the first thing he asked me about the book was, ‘Who the hell cleared it?’” No one had, Clancy replied. All his knowledge came from technical manuals, interviews with submarine experts, and books on military matters. “I hang my hat on getting as many things right as I can,” Clancy once said. “I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real—that’s the spooky part.”

Growing up in a middle-class family in Baltimore, Clancy “skipped over children’s literature to read naval history,” said The New York Times, “poring over journals and books intended for career military officers and engineering experts.” He joined the ROTC during college, but his nearsightedness—betrayed by his trademark dark-tinted Coke-bottle glasses—stopped him from serving in Vietnam. Clancy embarked instead on a career in insurance, but never abandoned his interest in military matters or his childhood dream of becoming a writer.

In the early 1980s, Clancy used his spare time to finish a draft of The Hunt for Red October, an adrenaline-fueled account of a Soviet submarine commander defecting to the U.S. The Naval Institute Press in Annapolis, Md., “took a risk on the manuscript—and on Clancy, its first author of original fiction—and bought it for $5,000,” said The Washington Post. The bet paid off. The book topped best-seller lists after President Ronald Reagan, who’d been handed a copy, called it “my kind of yarn” and said he couldn’t put it down. Under a multibook, $3 million contract with publisher G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Clancy rattled off one thriller after another. Several of his brick-size novels, including The Hunt for Red October, 1987’s Patriot Games,and 1989’s Clear and Present Danger, were turned into Hollywood movies, with Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck playing hero Jack Ryan—a Wall Street stockbroker turned CIA agent, whom the author called “a new, improved version of me.”

“Clancy had detractors,” said the Los Angeles Times. Some critics cited his inability to present human beings with as much nuance as he applied to depicting submarines and artillery pieces. “Others criticized the conservative political views espoused in his novels. In Clancy’s world, the heroes are straitlaced patriots, might is always right, and military missions go off as planned.” But Clancy—who bought his own M1A1 Abrams tank after becoming a millionaire many times over—shrugged off criticism. “[I’m not] a good fit for the so-called literary establishment. They want to write pretty, complicated things that show off how brilliant they are,” he said in 2003. “What I offer most is verisimilitude, showing my readers what’s real.”

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