Tom Clancy, who has died aged 66, was the author of gung-ho techno-military thrillers which generated many millions of dollars, a number of successful films, and a franchise of equally popular – and profitable – video games.
“As real events always prove, bad things tend to happen,” Clancy once observed. “I write about those possibilities. Now, that doesn’t make me a good fit for the so-called literary establishment. They want to write pretty, complicated things that show off how brilliant they are.” And while he claimed to be merely “a pretty good storyteller”, “what I offer most is verisimilitude, showing my readers what’s real”.
The book which made Clancy’s name was his first, The Hunt for Red October, released in 1984 by a small publisher, the Naval Institute Press. The story turns on the disillusioned captain of a new class of Soviet nuclear submarine who decides to defect to the United States with his boat, Red October, which is equipped with ballistic missiles. The Soviets respond by dispatching the whole of their northern fleet to destroy the submarine before it can reach America; meanwhile, the US Navy — alerted by a spy in the Kremlin — waits to provide assistance.
Despite its rip-roaring plot, the book would almost certainly have languished had not a copy found its way under the White House Christmas Tree. President Ronald Reagan lapped it up as “the perfect yarn”, while his Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger went further, declaring: “The technical detail is vast and accurate, remarkably so for an author who originally had no background or experience.” (At the time of the book’s publication, Clancy was working as an insurance agent and had only a single published article to his name.)
When the Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, read the book, he asked: “Who the hell cleared it?” Clancy claimed that he had had no access to classified material, but had gleaned details of weapons systems simply by researching technical manuals, magazines and reference books. He also drew on the mass market war game Harpoon.
If some critics complained that the characters were one-dimensional, the public did not mind. In the first two years The Hunt for Red October sold more than 300,000 copies in hardback and a further two million in paperback, earning Clancy an estimated $500,000 in royalties and a further $500,000 for the rights to the subsequent film, which starred Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin and grossed $200 million worldwide.
“Reality is fairly simple,” Clancy observed. “My critics say my characters are cardboard, but the people I know and write about tell me I get it all right. The mark of a superior person is to take complexity and find the simplicity in it.”
The success of The Hunt for Red October secured Clancy a $3 million, three-book contract, and the Pentagon took him under its wing, permitting him to spend time in a missile-carrying frigate and a submarine and to drive an M1 tank (“Sixty tons, 1,500 horsepower and a four-inch gun — that’s sex!” Clancy enthused. “That was a ball! The army treats me right… When I was a kid I wanted to be a tanker. With a tank I am death!’’). Meanwhile, in Baltimore harbour he was allowed to go on board a Royal Navy ship to meet Prince Andrew, then serving as a helicopter pilot.
Clancy’s second novel Red Storm Rising — also a bestseller — offered his vision of World War Three, which breaks out after Arab terrorists blow up one third of the Soviet Union’s oilfields, and the Soviets respond by seizing the Gulf States to safeguard their energy needs before invading Western Europe. The war is a hi-tech affair, with no resort to nuclear or chemical weapons. Red Storm Rising was adopted as required reading at America’s Naval War College, and the military historian John Keegan declared that it would take its place in “a long tradition of military futurology” alongside Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and HG Wells’s War of the Worlds.
Patriot Games (1987) addressed the subject of international terrorism and featured Jack Ryan, the CIA analyst who had appeared in The Hunt for Red October, this time attempting to foil a plot by an Irish republican group to kidnap the Prince and Princess of Wales. In 1992 it appeared as a film with Harrison Ford in the starring role.
By now Clancy was a rich man, a turn of events which appeared to cause him little surprise. “In America,” he said, “there ain’t no excuse. You can go out and do anything you damn well please if you try hard enough.” All he had done was to follow his instincts, developing his boyhood fascination with aircraft, ships and tanks. As he once put it: “I’m a technology freak — and the best stuff is in the military.”
Thomas Leo Clancy was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 12 1947, the son of a postman. The family was devoutly Roman Catholic, and after attending a Catholic high school in Baltimore he went on to the city’s Loyola College, a Jesuit institution where he switched from Physics to English Literature. “Ethics [is] what they stress,” he later said of his education. “It’s what ought to be stressed. You’re taught to be accountable, to do the right things instead of the easy things.”
As a student, he enrolled in the US Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and was itching to serve in Vietnam — an ambition that was sabotaged by his defective eyesight. But he was also determined to become a writer, and was sorely disappointed when a short story he submitted to a science fiction magazine was rejected.
Yet his marriage in 1969, to Wanda Thomas, required him to earn an assured income, so he found work as an insurance agent, first in Baltimore and later in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1973 he moved to the OF Bowen Agency in Maryland, a business owned by his wife’s grandfather; seven years later Clancy and Wanda bought the firm for $125,000, although they were not able to produce all the money until he had achieved success as a novelist.
Clancy claimed he was “a lousy salesman; it was tough basically saying to people, ‘Something bad could happen to you, so buy this [policy] from me’.” This was over-modest, since he was soon making about $250,000 a year. Well-off he may have been, but he was also bored — and his literary ambitions persisted. “I’d made my own trap,” he later recalled. “I had kids to support, mortgage payments, and a business to pay off.”
In 1976 he had read a story in the newspapers about a mutiny in a Soviet warship, Storozhevoy, in which some of the crew had tried to defect to Sweden. He now resolved to use the incident for the basis of a novel about a mutiny on board a nuclear submarine. At about the same time, the events of the Falklands conflict caused Clancy to start thinking about the weapons used in modern warfare. The seeds were sown for The Hunt for Red October.
Clancy’s fourth book was The Cardinal of the Kremlin, about espionage and SDI (the “Star Wars” nuclear defence shield proposed by the Reagan White House).
In all Clancy wrote 17 novels, the last of which is Command Authority. Others are Clear and Present Danger (1989); The Sum of All Fears (1991); Rainbow Six (1998); and The Teeth of the Tiger (2003). Several of his books were made into films — the latest, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is due to be released in the United States on Christmas Day.
A keen tabletop wargamer, in 1996 Clancy founded Red Storm Entertainment, which would adapt his complex military themes to computer games. Its first release, a turn-based strategy called Tom Clancy’s Politika, was published in conjunction with a board game and Tom Clancy’s Power Plays novel (penned by a ghostwriter) of the same title.
It had a muted reception, but the company struck gold with its third effort, Rainbow Six, again released in conjunction with a novel. A slew of sequels and four more franchises followed – Ghost Recon, Splinter Cell, End War and Air Combat, all under the Clancy name. Championing a new breed of gaming that placed strategy and teamwork above virtual brute force, they none the less excited an inevitable degree of controversy for the uncompromising realism of their on-screen violence.
The game Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas (2006) had the desert city complaining about possible damage to its revenues, while US Army commanders faced a quite different problem: many new recruits stayed up late playing at virtual combat, leaving them too tired for exercises the next morning. Yet in 2001, the Department of Defense had incorporated Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear into its training programme, as a guide to successful military operation in urban settings. Red Storm Entertainment was sold to Ubisoft in 2000, and eight years later Ubisoft acquired all intellectual property rights to the Clancy name in video gaming.
Clancy was a part owner of the American League baseball team the Baltimore Orioles.
Tom Clancy’s marriage to Wanda Thomas, with whom he had a son and three daughters, was dissolved in 1998; the following year he married Alexandra Marie Llewellyn.
Tom Clancy, born April 12 1947, died October 2013
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