Remembering Tom Clancy

You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it and you keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the Muse comes and kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired…it’s just hard work.

-The man himself

I hopped on my computer yesterday afternoon to make an unfortunate discovery; that one of my writer idols had passed away. It is always a sad day to learn that one of your gods is indeed mortal. Clancy’s early novels were among my favorites as a kid and teenager, and his work was a major influence on my decision to become a writer.

Many people have poked fun at Clancy’s shortcomings as a writer; his books were too long, his politics too simplistic, his right-wing views too obvious, et cetera and so on. What people don’t mention is that Clancy did for the spy thriller what Robert B. Parker did for the detective novel; he rescued it from the dustbin of irrelevancy, took it out of its niche-market ghetto and put it on America’s bookshelf. Like Parker before him, he got a good deal of flak for doing it but didn’t let the haters slow him down any.

Oh yeah…and the man could write.

Clancy’s hobby was military history but his first career was selling insurance, and both show through in his writing style. His novels were always meticulous and detail-oriented, yet they remained digestible to the common man. His prose was slick and droll, with a dry understated wit others often endeavor to emulate but few pull off even today. His plots seldom twisted unpredictably…but they were rock-solid, with all loose ends securely tied off by the final page. And while Jack Ryan was definitely an author stand-in and a middle aged conservative’s power fantasy, Clancy was careful to keep him human. Ryan (and Clancy’s conservative views) may have always come out on top, but old Jack bled and cried and fumbled some along the way…sometimes even as a direct result of his stiff-necked pride.

There is a certain jingoistic element to technothriller genre, and Clancy was no exception; America always saved the day and our tech – not to mention our warrior class – was always better than anyone who dared challenge us. However, his antagonists were seldom cardboard villains; the Russians were portrayed as consummate professionals who simply served a different side and the nod-and-wink camaraderie of Cold War politics was always expertly crafted. He summed it up by comparing Russia and America to “two men in a smoke-filled room, endlessly playing cards. Each knows the other is cheating, but neither wants to speak up, for that would end the game”. For my money, that’s as good a metaphor as any for the half a decade of not-war America sort-of-fought with the Soviet Union. He did his thing with so much style fans were bummed when the Berlin Wall came down.

Unfortunately so was he. His latter-day novels read like a grumpy old codger bemused and annoyed at the state of the world…indeed, a few came off as so phoned-in some fans accused him of having them ghostwritten. But in his glory days no armchair general could touch him; books like October and Patriot Games remain classics, and all the authors in today’s potboiler genre owe him a big debt of gratitude for paving the way.

I’ll miss the guy. He was on my list of authors I wanted to meet, and now that he is gone I shall never get the chance. His work is part of the reason I become an author, and I have to admit I read my high-school copy of The Hunt For Red October until the spine fell apart. Since I cannot shake hands with him I shall settle for hoisting a pint in his honor.

I’ll just be sure to buy American when I do.