Thursday 3 October 2013

Tom Clancy (1947–2013), Jack Ryan, and Red Storm Rising (Collins, 1987): a Friday Forgotten Book

Events, I'm afraid, have rather overtaken me here. I've been promising – myself as much as anyone else – that I'd do a series of blog posts on Tom Clancy for bloody ages, so it was a bugger to learn on Wednesday that he'd gone and died (at the not overly ripe age of sixty-six), thus denying me the opportunity to do so while he was still with us (the swine). Not that Clancy would have cared or even noticed, I'm sure – as, say, Elmore Leonard probably didn't notice anything I wrote about him before he carked it a couple of months back – but even so, it would have been nice, as I managed with Leonard, to post something while he was still alive, given that so few of the authors I blog about are, and also given that I've been reading Clancy for longer than most of them.

There was a period in the 1990s when it felt like the only fiction I was reading was Clancy's. It was, I think, the movies wot did it. As an admirer of well-crafted action flicks and thrillers, I had a lot of time for two of the three Clancy film adaptations that had been released by the mid-'90s: John McTiernan's The Hunt for Red October (1990) and, especially, Phillip Noyce's Clear and Present Danger (1994). (I was much less keen on Noyce's earlier Patriot Games, which lacked the light and shade of his later effort.) Naturally, those two films led me to the source texts: the Jack Ryan (no relation) series of novels, of which Clancy penned eight instalments proper, plus a bunch of spin-offs starring CIA agent John Clark, his partner Domingo Chavez and, latterly, Ryan's son, Jack Jr.

The Ryan books are mostly great big bricks of things, even in paperback, which was how I originally read them. (More recently I've been picking up UK Collins hardback first editions in Lewes charity shops, with that aforementioned, now likely abandoned, series of Clancy posts in mind; you can see them, with their David Scutt-illustrated dust jackets, scattered about this post; they're more akin to breeze-blocks than bricks.) Even so, I tore through them in the late-1990s and early 2000s, from The Hunt for Red October (1984) to The Bear and the Dragon (2000). (I haven't yet read the 2002 Ryan prequel Red Rabbit, which you can spy lurking in the background in the top photo, again bought in a Lewes charity shop.)

That they became, in one respect, increasingly far-fetched – the machinations necessary to elevate Ryan from CIA analyst (Patriot Games, 1987), to Deputy Director of the agency (Clear and Present Danger, 1989), then National Security Advisor, Vice President (Debt of Honor, 1994) and finally, outrageously, President of the United States (Executive Orders, 1996), left Clancy's authorial strings ever more visible – almost didn't matter: they were efficient, dense but incredibly pacey thrillers, turning on plots – Soviet defections, the war on drugs in South America, conflict between Russia and China – with more than a passing nod to real world tensions (and with an eerie prescience in the case of Debt of Honor), and narratives that were never weighed down by the technobabble Clancy loved to lace his thrillers with.

It's for the Ryan novels that Clancy will chiefly be remembered – there's a Kenneth Branagh-directed rebooted Ryan movie on the way which will doubtless help to cement that rep – but for me, Clancy's best book is one of the very few not set in the Ryanverse – his second novel:

Red Storm Rising, co-written with war gamer Larry Bond and published in the States in 1986 by Putnam's and in the UK the following year by Collins (the edition seen here). A plausible account of a hypothetical shooting war between Russia and NATO over oil reserves, its power resides in its breathless, irresistible sweep, in the way the narrative affords a swooping, God's eye view of the theatre of conflict. The action leaps from locale to locale with brazen abandon: Iceland, the north Atlantic, Europe, West Germany, back and forth, surging from one nerve-shredding military encounter to the next, and with the threat of nuclear escalation ever-present.

Admittedly the characterisation is tissue thin – the protagonists are little more than cyphers, and years later I struggle to recall a single thing about any of them (whereas I can still just about conjure up the odd bit about Jack Ryan and John Clark and Ding Chavez) – but that's a relatively minor quibble: for sheer scope and scale, the book can't be beat. Certainly it deserves not to be overlooked in the torrent of Clancy eulogies and obituaries that are sure to ensue, which is why I'm commending it (a day early, as is my wont, but also so that this post doesn't appear too far behind the news of Clancy's demise) to this week's edition of Patti Nase Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books, in order that it should, I hope, escape that eponymous fate.


  1. I actually stopped reading Clancy after Red Storm Rising. I really did like the book, but it was sooooooooooooooo long. I just never felt the urge to pick up another of his after that. I've probably missed some good ones.

  2. When I moved to Washington, the one book I always searched for at every used book store or book sale was The Hunt for Red October. There were rumors people had gotten rid of early copies of THFRO before it became a huge hit and that these precious and scarce first editions were worth a fortune. Used to get heart palpitations every time I picked up a copy of a Naval Institute Press copy of the book.

  3. Charles,you're right, Red Storm is really long, like a lot of Clancy novels. Years ago I thought nothing of getting stuck into a massive book like that; these days, and especially now I'm a dad, I try and limit breeze-block books to a couple a year, otherwise I'd only get to read about five books all year!

    BG, I saw a Naval Institute edition of Hunt recently. Can't think where it was now – possibly on holiday in Suffolk – but I checked it, and it was a much later printing. Mind you, I think I'd actually prefer a Collins first edition/first impression; those are quite scarce these days.

  4. Nick, I'm almost embarrassed to say I've not read any Clancy, though I did enjoy HUNT in film, which I went to see because Connery was in it. So, yes, now I'll read one just because he's expired. But which one? Is there a really good stand alone or the first of one of the series (I doubt I'll go on into a series)? Speak, oh great one.

  5. Haha, great one my arrrraaaanyway, you could do a lot worse than trying Hunt, but I think my favourite, as with the films, is Clear and Present Danger. If you've seen the film I'm not sure how much more you'll get from the book, but it is a good one.

  6. Clancy never seemed like something I'd enjoy. I like a good spy novel, but I'm not drawn to military fiction at all. Still sorry to hear he died. It seemed pretty sudden.

  7. Nick, I hope you will do that series of blog posts on Tom Clancy. Like you I'm also an "admirer of well-crafted action flicks and thrillers" and the late author is right up there in my list of spy thriller writers. I enjoy reading his novels even if the plots seem overdone. RED STORM RISING is one of his books that I haven't read yet. And my favourite so far is RED OCTOBER. I liked the book better than the film.

  8. Yet another author I've neglected for years, despite numerous people both online and in the flesh telling me how hooked they are/were on his stuff.

    I've got a copy of Patriot Games, which I picked up practically for free at a huge used bookstore sale, sitting on my shelf. Decent place to start?

  9. Kelly, if you ever change your mind, a couple of the Jack Ryan novels lean further towards the spy genre than the military or action ones: Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin definitely.

    Prashant, well, never say never; I may come back to Clancy one day.

    Craig, Patriot Games isn't one of my favourites – I'm not sure I'd start there, simply because it may put you off trying Hunt or Cardinal or especially Clear and Present Danger.

  10. Well it may take me a few years but I eventually get around to everything, and picking up the five Jack Ryan films on Blu-ray inspired me to finally get to work on the books. I now have copies of The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear & Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears, and Rainbow Six.

    I started with Red October and I'm enjoying it quite a bit. I'm wondering if I should follow it up with Rainbow Six, since the other novels I have were adapted into films I just finished watching, and I never played any of the Rainbow video games. And after getting a taste of Clark and Chavez in the Clear & Present Danger film, I'm itching for more of them.

    1. Can't remember much about Rainbow Six, but I'm pretty sure I read it back in the day. I will say of Patriot Games that the book is better than the film, as far as I recall, so if I were you I think I'd go in the order the books were originally published (although Patriot Games is actually set before Red October).