Tom Clancy: Remembering a Technothriller Master

Military fiction icon Tom Clancy died October 1 in a Baltimore hospital at the age of 66. With the publication of The Hunt for Red October in 1984, the former insurance agent was catapulted into the spotlight when President Ronald Reagan commented that he enjoyed the book. Clancy’s descriptions of military weapons and strategies were so eerily accurate that he was grilled to reveal his top-secret sources. Even more astounding was the fact that the author never served in the military (he was nearsighted) or the CIA, and he denied ever using inside sources for his thrillers. Clancy was just a technology junkie who believed the military had the best toys.Clancy’s fiction debut was not only the first novel to be published by the Naval Institute Press, it’s also believed to be one of the earliest best sellers that was word-processed (on an Apple IIe, using WordStar) instead of typed.

Clancy’s novels dominated the best-seller lists at the height of the Cold War and beyond. He became the predominant expert of military fiction, and all other writers in the genre are still evaluated by how well their works might appeal to fans of Clancy. Clancy also stood out as a genius at self-branding. In the wake of several wildly popular books, he launched a series (Tom Clancy’s Op-Center, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell) that featured his name but that he didn’t write. The success of that series inspired other authors like James Patterson and Clive Cussler to follow suit with their own publishing empires. Video game manufacturers and fans also owe a huge debt to Clancy; games based on his thrillers, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon, are credited by many for establishing the popularity of first-person shooter scenarios.

Starting in 1990 with the release of the film version of The Hunt for Red October, Clancy’s protagonist, Jack Ryan, soon dominated the screen as well as the page. To date three actors have played his iconic hero: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. The fourth, Chris Pine, stars as Ryan in the film Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which will arrive in theaters on Christmas Day.

Grant Blackwood, who co-wrote Dead or Alive with Clancy, said in an email, “I read Hunt for Red October while I was in the Navy, doing a lot of the things Tom wrote about. To end up working with him…25 years later was an honor. Tom was a giant. Not only to the thriller genre, but to the book world at large. Single-handedly he changed the publishing landscape.”

The next Jack Ryan novel, Command Authority, written with Mark Greaney, will be published on December 3rd. As Blackwood notes, “Tom Clancy will be sorely missed by his millions of fans—and perhaps especially by our military personnel and those in the intelligence community. He brought to life the dedication and sacrifice it takes to serve our country.”—Jeff Ayers, Seattle P.L.