‘Red October’ author Tom Clancy dies at 66
Tom Clancy’s debut book, “The Hunt for Red October,” was frequently cited as one of the greatest genre novels ever written.
The New York Times
Tom Clancy, whose complex, adrenaline-fueled military novels spawned a new genre of thrillers and made him one of the world’s best-known and best-selling authors, died Tuesday in Baltimore. He was 66.
Mr. Clancy, who grew up in Baltimore, died at Johns Hopkins Hospital after a brief illness, his lawyer, J.W. Thompson Webb, said Wednesday. Neither Webb nor Mr. Clancy’s longtime publisher, Ivan Held, president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, said he knew the cause of death.
Mr. Clancy’s debut book, “The Hunt for Red October,” was frequently cited as one of the greatest genre novels ever written. With its publication in 1984, he introduced a new kind of story: an espionage thriller dense with technical details about weaponry, submarines and intelligence agencies.
It found a voracious readership. More than 100 million copies of his novels are in print and 17 have reached No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller List, including “Threat Vector,” which was released in December 2012. Prolific until his death, Mr. Clancy had been awaiting the publication of his next book, “Command Authority” — co-written with Mark Greaney — set for Dec. 3.
His books’ impact has been felt far beyond the publishing world. Some were adapted by Hollywood and became blockbusters starring Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck as Clancy’s hero protagonist, Jack Ryan. Mr. Clancy arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games that were so realistic that the military licensed them for training purposes. On TV, fast-paced espionage using high-tech tools in the Clancy mold found a place in popular shows such as “24” and “Homeland.”
The enterprises made Mr. Clancy a millionaire many times over and a familiar figure on the pop-culture landscape, frequently seen in photographs wearing a baseball cap and aviator sunglasses and holding a cigarette. He acquired an 80-acre farm on Chesapeake Bay. He became a part owner of the Baltimore Orioles. And he bought a tank.
It was all a far cry from his days as a Maryland insurance salesman writing on the side in pursuit of literary aspirations and submitting his manuscript for “The Hunt for Red October” — inspired by a real-life 1975 mutiny aboard a Soviet missile frigate — to the Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. An editor there, Deborah Grosvenor, was mesmerized by the Cold War tale that takes place on a Soviet submarine. In real life, the mutiny was put down, but in the book a Soviet submarine skipper hands his vessel over to the U.S. and defects.
Grosvenor initially had a hard time persuading her boss at the Naval Institute Press to read it, because Mr. Clancy was an unknown and the publisher had no experience with fiction. She was concerned with the many technical descriptions and asked Mr. Clancy to make cuts. He complied, trimming at least 100 pages.
“I said: ‘I think we have a potential best-seller here, and if we don’t grab this thing, somebody else would,’ ” Grosvenor, now a literary agent, said in an interview. “But he had this innate storytelling ability, and his characters had this very witty dialogue. The gift of the Irish or whatever it was, the man could tell a story.”
The Naval Institute Press paid $5,000 for the book, publishing it in 1984.
The book became a runaway best-seller when President Reagan, given a copy for Christmas, called it “my kind of yarn” and said he could not put it down.
But it attracted suspicion for its details about Soviet submarines, weaponry, satellites and fighter planes. Even high-ranking members of the military took notice of the apparent inside knowledge.
In an interview in 1986, Mr. Clancy said: “When I met Navy Secretary John Lehman last year, the first thing he asked me about the book was, ‘Who the hell cleared it?’ ”
No one, Mr. Clancy insisted. All of his knowledge was derived from technical manuals, interviews with submarine experts and books on military matters.
While he spent time on military bases, visited the Pentagon and dined with high-level military officials, he insisted he did not want to know any classified information.
“I hang my hat on getting as many things right as I can,” he said in an interview. “I’ve made up stuff that’s turned out to be real; that’s the spooky part.”
He explained that unclassified information can lead to insights about state secrets.
“One of the reasons we are so successful is that we have a free society with open access to information,” he said. “If you change that, if you try to close off the channels of information, we’ll end up just like the Russians, and their society does not work. The best way to turn America into another Russia is to emulate their methods of handling information.”
Thomas Leo Clancy Jr. was born in Baltimore on April 12, 1947. Mr. Clancy became obsessed by naval history from a young age, reading journals and books whose intended audience was career military officers and engineering experts.
He attended Loyola College in Baltimore, where he majored in English, and graduated in 1969. While he harbored ambitions to join the military, even joining the Army ROTC, he was told he was too nearsighted.
Mr. Clancy began working at a small insurance agency in rural Maryland that was founded by his wife’s grandfather, a profession he was happy to abandon after success as an author.
Early in his career, Mr. Clancy said his dream had been simply to publish a book so he would be in the Library of Congress catalog. His dreams were answered many times over. He followed “The Hunt for Red October” with “Red Storm Rising” in 1986, “Patriot Games” in 1987, “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” in 1988 and “Clear and Present Danger” in 1989.
The critical reception to his novels was gushing from the start. Reviewing “Red Storm Rising” in The New York Times in 1986, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that the book “far surpassed” Mr. Clancy’s debut novel. “Red Storm Rising” is a “superpower thriller,” he wrote, “the verbal equivalent of a high-tech video game.”
Other critics questioned the unwaveringly virtuous nature of many of his heroes, particularly his protagonist Jack Ryan.
“All the Americans are paragons of courage, endurance and devotion to service and country,” Robert Lekachman wrote in The Times in 1986. “Their officers are uniformly competent and occasionally inspired. Men of all ranks are faithful husbands and devoted fathers.”
Mr. Clancy is survived by his second wife, Alexandra Llewellyn Clancy, and their daughter; and four children from his first marriage.
David Shanks, a Penguin executive who worked with Mr. Clancy for decades, called him “a consummate author, creating the modern-day thriller, and one of the most visionary storytellers of our time.”
Mr. Clancy once spoke of the laserlike focus required to succeed: “You learn to write the same way you learn to play golf. You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.