Tom Clancy (born 1947) writes novels of adventure and espionage in the international military-industrial complex that have earned him enormous popularity in the 1980s as a creator of the "techno-thriller" genre.
Tom Clancy was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1947, the son of a mail carrier and a credit employee. After graduating Loyola College in Baltimore in 1969, Clancy married Wanda Thomas, an insurance agency manager, and became an insurance agent in Baltimore, and later in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1973, he joined the O.F. Bowen Agency in Owings, Maryland, becoming an owner there in 1980. His poor eyesight made him ineligible for a military career, but Clancy maintained an interest in the military and researched various aspects of the armed forces and military technology. The ideas for several novels and main characters he wrote in the 1980s were formed in the late 1970s while he was conducting research. During this time, Clancy wrote in his spare time while working and raising a family, and in 1984, his first novel, The Hunt for Red October, was published by The Naval Institute Press, a noncommercial publisher in Annapolis. The story of the defection of a Soviet submarine commander to the United States, the novel captured the spirit of the Reagan-era Cold War politics that called attention to Soviet military capability and the United States' capacity to meet and surpass the Soviet challenge. The Hunt for Red October was noticed by President and Mrs. Reagan, who praised the book publicly and helped boost the novel to bestseller lists. Casper Weinberger, Reagan's Secretary of Defense, reviewed the book for The Times Literary Supplement, calling it "a splendid and riveting story" and praising the technical descriptions as "vast and accurate." Clancy's subsequent novels continued to feature plots based upon critical world political issues from the perspective of military or CIA personnel, including the international drug trade and terrorism. All of Clancy's popular novels have resided on bestseller lists, and Clear and Present Danger (1989) sold more copies than any other novel published in the 1980s, according to Louis Menand of The New Yorker. Today Clancy continues to write successful novels. Several of his books have been adapted as popular films, including The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games (1987), and Clear and Present Danger.
Although, according to an interview with Contemporary Authors in 1988, Clancy claimed he did not create the "techno-thriller," his use of highly involved technical detail incorporated into complex, suspenseful plots made him the most successful practitioner of the genre and added a new level of military realism and sophistication to the traditional adventure novel. His books take their plots from the most pressing international concerns of his times. When the arms race was escalating in the 1980s, Clancy's novels The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising (1986), and The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) used different aspects of the Soviet-American conflict for story lines. In the post-Cold War era, Clancy turned to the South American drug trade in Clear and Present Danger, IRA terrorism in Patriot Games, and Middle East peace and nuclear proliferation in The Sum of All Fears (1991). Clancy takes his characters from various levels of military establishment insiders, from elite soldiers and crewman to commanders, generals, espionage operatives, and government officials. Their goals and motives are often clearly good or evil, and while later novels feature some ambivalence or introspection in lead characters, most of the moral choices characters face are straightforward questions of right and wrong. In addition to using declassified documents and tours of vessels and bases, Clancy conducted interviews with personnel in order to draw his characters accurately. The hero in many Clancy novels is Jack Ryan, a sometime CIA agent who epitomizes integrity, bravery, and ingenuity in a changing, high stakes world. Whether he is assigned to resolve a crisis, as in Clear and Present Danger, or stumbles accidently into an international incident and becomes a target for revenge, as in Patriot Games, Ryan is adept at using available technology to achieve his mission; as Clancy stated in the CA interview, "the superior individual is the guy who makes use of [new technology]." The accuracy of Clancy's descriptions of military-industrial technology and personnel has been characterized as remarkable for one outside the establishment, and his favorable portrayal of the American armed forces has earned him respect in military circles.
Ronald Reagan called The Hunt for Red October "the perfect yarn." This comment could be a summation of critical reception to Clancy's novels. Although some critics found the plots of The Sum of All Fears and Clear and Present Danger too lengthy and bogged down by the detailed technical descriptions, most agree that Clancy is successful in creating suspenseful, thrilling action stories. Appreciation of Clancy's technological details varies among critics; some find the insider's glimpse of weaponry and tactics presented with clarity, accuracy, and interest, while others, perhaps more knowledgeable about the technology described, find Clancy's renderings inaccurate and implausible. Critics are almost unanimous in their negative reaction to Clancy's skill at characterization, finding them underdeveloped, and the hero Jack Ryan too flawless and unbelievably virtuous. Clancy responded to criticism about Ryan by giving him some vices in later novels, a change some critics found unbelievable. Clancy's novels usually are received by critics in the spirit they are written, to entertain and educate while highlighting the important international issues of the times and showing how the United States can meet difficult challenges with moral integrity, courage, and the wise use of modern technology.
Further Reading on Tom Clancy
Bestsellers 89, Issue 1, Gale, 1989.
Bestsellers 90, Issue 1, Gale, 1990.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 45, Gale, 1987.
American Legion, December, 1991, p. 16.
Chicago Tribune Book World, September 7, 1986.
Detroit News, January 20, 1985.
Fortune, July 18, 1988; August 26, 1991.