It’s probably incorrect to call Tom Clancy, who died on Tuesday at the age of 66, the father of the modern political thriller. That honor should rightly go first to Ian Fleming, about whose James Bond novels little more need be said. Not only did Fleming create the most dashing British hero since Sherlock Holmes, he was also a pulp craftsman of no small literary gifts: “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning,” runs the opening line of the first Bond novel, Casino Royale(1953), a beginning worthy of Melville.
Next comes Frederick Forsyth, whose 1971 novel The Day of the Jackal remains the gold standard for clandestine-world fiction, a gripping tale that has the reader rooting for a cold-blooded assassin, motivated solely by money, to put a bullet through the head of the father of modern France, Charles de Gaulle. Forsyth’s command of history and tradecraft gave the novel its realistic feel, and his inversion of the moral universe immediately distinguished the book from the competition. It would not be until the publication 13 years later of Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October that another work of spy fiction would have such an impact.
That book, you’ll recall, told the story of a rogue Soviet naval officer who hijacks his own submarine and precipitates an international incident. With the world on the brink of World War III, it’s left to the hero, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, to save the day by divining and then acting upon his educated guess that Captain Ramius is defecting, not attacking. But it wasn’t the story itself that rocketed Red October to the top of the best-seller lists. Clancy had never published fiction before — the novel had been rejected by the major publishing houses and was issued by the U.S. Naval Institute Press — but an astute editor saw the possibilities in his command of technology wedded to his narrative gifts. Red October wasn’t just fiction; it was really happening.
At first sales were modest, but then Clancy caught his big break: President Reagan touted it as his kind of yarn, and away it went. (Presidential endorsements mean a lot — JFK did the same thing for Fleming’s career.) Proving once again that, in publishing as in Hollywood, nobody knows anything, and that all the MBAs and business consultants in the world are useless when it comes to predicting the public’s taste, a book about the inner workings of a nuclear sub and the dusty lives of Agency analysts enthralled the reading public and launched Clancy on the career that lasted him an all-too-short lifetime.
Clancy went on to chronicle Ryan’s exploits in a series of novels, bucking him up from Company whiz kid to, eventually, president of the United States after a crazed Japanese pilot crashes a 747 into the Capitol during a joint session of Congress and decapitates the American government. As his plots began to diverge from the grippingly realistic world of Red October — in Debt of Honor (1994) he got the delivery mechanism, an airplane, right, but the foreign power wrong — his work to my mind became less interesting, although it still retained the inside-baseball, you-are-there feel that marked all his fiction. Still, it was never dull: After reading a Clancy novel, you felt like the national-security adviser yourself.
But Clancy’s real effect was on the generation of thriller writers that came after him, most notably Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn, who saw his you-are-there realism and raised it to a new level of both tradecraft and weapons, introducing their heroes (Scot Harvath and Mitch Rapp) not as analysts but as action figures, ready to fight and kill for God and Country and letting you know exactly how they do both. Islamic terrorists may have replaced the Russians and the Japanese as the current bêtes noires, but the appeal is the same: rough men standing ready to do violence to America’s enemies, in uncomfortably realistic, what-if settings. Can it happen here? You’re damn right it can.
And that’s also why Clancy, Flynn, Thor, and others have such a strong appeal to conservative audiences. Their heroes are not crippled by moral equivocation; they don’t try to see it the other guy’s way, unless they’re setting a trap for him. They dispatch America’s enemies with gusto, whether on the dusty streets of the ummah or in the back alleys of central Europe and East Asia. They are men of action — and they win, employing every technological trick in our nation’s arsenal to do so. They are Americans, as Americans used to be before the self-doubting poison of critical theory got injected into the body politic. They are us, as we can be again, once we eliminate it.
So it’s really no surprise that Clancy caught Reagan’s fancy. If James Bond was everything JFK wanted to be and mostly was — handsome, ruthless, cruel, and a relentless womanizer — so Jack Ryan was the Reaganesque ideal: smart, strong, brave, and patriotic. Clancy sensed the zeitgeist, grabbed it, and ran with it — we can win this thing was his message, and here’s how we do it. Forsyth’s Jackal, a master of disguise, forced us to admire a man we should despise, and made it hard to root for Lebel, the dogged Inspector Hound who eventually puts him down — the perfect tale for the age of the antihero. Tom Clancy restored heroism to its rightful place and begat a whole new tribe of men who combined the cunning and bravado of the Jackal with the moral strength and intellectual acumen of Jack Ryan. Every thriller writer owes him not only a debt of honor, but a debt of gratitude.