Say what you will about Tom Clancy, but the man knew how to tell a story. Of his self-written novels — leaving aside the Clancy “branded” books and his current crop of co-authored works — there was only one real misfire. Reading 2002’s Red Rabbit, you might find yourself thinking, “I liked this better when it was called Day of the Jackal.” Not bad for a former insurance salesman, who had hoped to sell his first novel, The Hunt for Red October to a few hundred Navy officers — until it got blurbed by President Reagan.
People talk about how Clancy made high-tech weaponry understandable to the layman, but that wasn’t his ace — it was his ability to keep countless story threads going, all over the globe, without the reader ever getting lost or tangled up in them. Most people can’t just drive to the corner store without swerving out of their lane a few times. And when Clancy dug deep, as he did with 1993’s Without Remorse, he could really affect you. He wrote that one after losing a child friend to cancer, and I think Clancy used that experience to show he could do more than simply quicken the reader’s pulse.
Clancy quit writing for years after 2003’s mostly-OK-but-not-great, The Teeth of the Tiger. I don’t know if he stopped because his last two books hadn’t been all that great, or — as I’m starting to suspect — for health reasons. He did come back three years ago, with a series of books co-written with different co-authors. Against All Enemies (with Peter Telep) remains the only Clancy book I couldn’t get through — and quickly. There was just something was missing from that one, but the others since 2010 have all read like “classic” Clancy of the ’80s and ’90s. Just a few days ago I pre-ordered Command Authority, due out in December. I suppose it will be his last.
Clancy was never afraid, in print or in person, to call out lefties. Appearing on Larry King to promote some novel or other, King asked one stupidly ignorant question after another, and an exasperated Clancy finally barked something like, “Read the damn book, Larry.” I hope I’ve remembered the quote exactly. It was for sure my favorite moment of the old Larry King Show.
Is it really possible that Larry King, who’s looked like day-old scrambled eggs for thirty years, outlived Tom Clancy? Stranger things have happened, but this one I’m taking a little personally.
Clancy will never be remembered as a great writer — by the people officially in charge of determining such things. But he had a way of twisting their tails, and for that he’ll never be forgiven.
But he certainly knew the secret to good storytelling: Give the reader characters they can care about, put those characters through hell — and then have them overcome. For that simple talent for telling a good story, we gladly plunked down our hard-earned money for each new and exciting novel.
By that measure, one Tom Clancy is worth an entire Ivy League of English lit professors.