Oct 2, 2013

R.I.P. Tom Clancy

Numerous outlets, including Deadline and The New York Times, are reporting the death of author Tom Clancy at the age of 66 following a brief illness. Clancy was one of the biggest names in spy fiction—certainly one of the genre’s bestsellers in the Eighties and Nineties. He was also one of the indisputable founding fathers of the modern genre dubbed the “techno-thriller,” well-researched page turners based on cutting edge technological concepts. (The techno-thriller and spy thriller genres often dovetail, as they did in Clancy’s books.) Clancy was the creator of one of the most recognizable spy franchise characters of modern times, CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Ryan first appeared in Clancy’s 1984 Cold War classic The Hunt for Red October, the first work of contemporary fiction ever to be published by the Naval Institute Press. (The initial print run was just 5,000 copies, and in the mid-Nineties, this was one of the most desirable modern first editions out there.) Part of what made the book such a success was its impressively accurate technical details, which won the author many fans among the U.S. military and intelligence establishment. Like Ian Fleming before him, Clancy got a huge boost in sales when an American president endorsed his work. Ronald Reagan told White House reporters that he was losing sleep because he couldn’t put down The Hunt for Red October, calling it “my kind of yarn.”

Red October was followed by other thick Jack Ryan thrillers, including Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (my favorite), Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears. These giant, daunting literary bricks were such a part of Eighties and Nineties pop culture that it’s impossible to imagine a Waldenbooks or B. Dalton of my childhood without picturing them prominently displayed in the front of the store. They were intrinsic to my own discovery of the spy genre when I was in middle school. Many hundreds of pages long and often weighing more than all my textbooks combined (in hardcover, anyway), each new Clancy book I read was a challenge to be conquered. Yet despite their dense technological details, they moved quickly and (in those days) always proved a rewarding read. The dense technical data was never boring, because Clancy made it exciting! Reading a Clancy novel, I always felt like I was privy to fascinating top secret information about high-tech weaponry and the inner workings of our military and intelligence services. Honestly, learning about submarine warfare and sniper skills and satellite technology was as thrilling and sometimes even as suspenseful as the roller coaster plots that Clancy concocted. (Some of those plots proved harrowingly prescient, particularly terrorists’ use of airliners to attack America in Debt of Honor.) I loved those novels, and I find it hard to believe that now all three of my favorite thriller writers of my youth are dead before their time: Ludlum, Crichton and now Clancy.

Tom Clancy’s cultural impact was not limited to the bestseller lists. He was also a trailblazer in videogames. His second novel, Red Storm Rising (chronicling WWIII), formed the basis for a war game the author was actively involved in developing, and in the Nineties he co-founded his own videogame company, Red Storm Entertainment (subsequently subsumed by Ubisoft). Clancy lent his name and expertise to three extremely successful Ubisoft series, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. As in his fiction, he insisted on a high level of technical accuracy in these games, and reportedly that realism led to the military actually using some of them in training.

Clancy also made his mark on film and television. The Hunt for Red October was made into a superb movie by John McTiernan in 1990 starring Sean Connery as Soviet sub captain Marko Ramius and Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan. With James Bond out of commission for half the decade, Jack Ryan became the cinematic spy hero of the Nineties, played by Harrison Ford in two further films (both directed by Philip Noyce), Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. The latter Ford film also introduced movie audiences to Clancy’s other primary hero, Black Ops mastermind John Clark, played by Willem Dafoe. The series was rebooted in the early 2000s with Ben Affleck playing a younger Ryan at the start of his career in The Sum of All Fears, and will be rebooted again later this year with Chris Pine playing Ryan at an even earlier point in his career, if that makes sense. I enjoyed the movies (well, except for Sum), but as a teenager felt frustrated that they never seemed to do the books justice. (How could they, cramming that many pages into a standard theatrical running time?) Clancy himself was often the most outspoken critic of the movies based on his books.

Even though miniseries would seem the perfect medium to adapt Clancy’s books, only two were made: Tom Clancy’s OP Center (1995), starring Harry Hamlin, and Tom Clancy’s NetForce (1999), starring Scott Bakula. It was reported in late 2011 that Clancy was working on a new TV series about Homeland Security. I was excited by the prospect, and I hope it might still see the light of day.

The most controversial way in which Clancy impacted the publishing industry was by turning his name into a brand, and that brand into a cottage industry. He lent his name to numerous series of paperback originals (some of which were tied in with videogames or miniseries), including Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Tom Clancy’s Op-Center, Tom Clancy’s Power Plays, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell. But despite his name being by far the largest thing on the cover, the actual books were written by other authors. While some of those authors were quite talented in their own right (including James Bond continuation author Raymond Benson), it seemed a bit disingenuous to market their books as something they weren’t. But there’s no arguing with the financial success of the model. While consumers might have the right to gripe, publishers loved the results. Soon, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler, James Patterson and others were following the same formula. (It’s proven very lucrative for the Ludlum estate, enabling them to keep publishing new material with the late author’s name splashed across the cover for more than a decade after his death, and will no doubt do the same for Clancy’s heirs.) In later years, Clancy even started turning over his signature Jack Ryan series to ghost writers, co-writing recent novels with Grant Blackwood and Mark Greaney. (There’s much debate among fans over how much co-writing Clancy actually did, as the author’s signature attention to detail certainly dwindled. It certainly seemed as if his heart was no longer in it, even in the last books he wrote on his own.)

Even without his numerous spin-off series, Tom Clancy’s legacy is assured. His early Jack Ryan books are bona fide classics of the genre, and Ryan himself will live on for as long as spy novels are read. This December will see the publication of a new Jack Ryan novel co-wrtitten with Greaney, Command Authority, as well as the long-awaited cinematic reboot of the character in Kenneth Brannagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Deadline’s obituary is the first place I’ve seen that title), starring Chris Pine. (Though there are rumors that Paramount may push the movie to next spring.) But beyond Jack Ryan, Clancy’s impact will be forever felt in the works of new authors and screenwriters he inspired. Like Ian Fleming and John le Carré, Tom Clancy forever changed the genre, and every techno-thriller author to come will owe him a debt of honor.

1 comment:

teeritz said...

Nicely stated, Tanner. Tom Clancy's passing is a blow to the genre (that he pretty much invented), but at least he left behind a slew of great books. I have the (beautiful white) hardcover version of "Rainbow Six" still to read someday. John Clark was a great character. I read the first of the "Op-Centre" titles and wasn't too thrilled with it. Even less so once the co-authored titles started appearing. It's a business, after all, I suppose.
Dammit, Elmore Leonard a couple of months ago, and now Clancy. I just did a quick post about them over on my blog.
Haven't felt this bad since '97, when Robert Mitchum died and James Stewart followed the next day.
World's ending, as far as I'm concerned.