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From the Archive: Will Tom Clancy be taken seriously in death?

In this article originally written on 2nd September 1994, Sean French wonders why Tom Clancy was hardly ever discussed at all during his lifetime.

New Statesman
Tom Clancy listens to questions during a discussion June 1, 2004 in Washington, DC. Image: Getty

When the Berlin Wall came down, various large questions were immediately asked: how will the economic change be managed without bloodshed? What effect will the realignment have on the alliances in western Europe, such as the EC and Nato? And, what are spy thrillers going to be about from now on?

The cultural change has been remarkable. Who remembers ITV's version of Len Deighton's Game, Set and Match trilogy, starring Ian Holm? It was never repeated. Almost the entire excitement of the series concerned Holm's elaborate attempts to cross over into the dark lands beyond the Iron Curtain. It was first broadcast a year or two before the disappearance of the Wall and it seems that the schedulers have decided that audiences would find it difficult to get excited by a journey that is now about as challenging as a walk to the end of Brighton pier.

Writers, and readers, of thrillers have been left with a racial vacuum. Which group is it OK to hate nowadays? In order to discover the answer, I've just been reading the new Tom Clancy novel, Debt of Honour, just published in Britain (by HarperCollins). Clancy's work occupies a curious position in the British literary scene. He is probably the best-selling author of fiction in the world and the new novel is top of the British hardback list. Clancy writes assertively, almost evangelically, ideological novels in which the principal heroes are the CIA and American armed forces, though he has a particularly soft spot for the marine corps. His heroes and heroines are intensely moral men and women who may drink too much occasionally, but do not fornicate. They respect family values, religion and America.

Intensely moral, but not pedantically law abiding. In Clancy's last book, Without Remorse, set during the Vietnam war, a liberal ex-Ivy League political assistant betrays the existence of a covert mission aimed at releasing American POWs held by the Vietcong. The mission is aborted and when its leader discovers the source of the leak, he murders the traitor in cold blood with the evident approval of the author. In the new novel, Jack Ryan (the hero of most of Clancy's books) is the national security advisor to the US President and he authorises a mission to assassinate the Japanese leaders of a plan to illegally destabilise the American economy.

This may sound rather tame, since there are plenty of thrillers in which "our" side uses violent, lawless methods to defeat the enemy. But Clancy writes as an insider. In the mid-1980s the Times Literary Supplement asked famous public figures to choose an unfairly neglected book. Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's hawkish Secretary of State, chose Tom Clancy's first novel, The Hunt for Red October. This novel is about the defection of a Soviet sub at the height of the cold war of the Reagan years. The story was entertainingly filmed, but the movie was unable to retain what made the book so remarkable, which was the extraordinary detail of its portrayal of the American naval procedure. Indeed, having been turned down elsewhere, the book was originally published by a publisher that specialised in technical works of naval strategy. The detail was so authoritative that there was even some talk of prosecution.

Clancy never bothers to describe the appearance of his characters, but he is a master of technical process. How would the government actually go about the process of conceiving and executing an illegal incursion into a South American country in order to attack a drugs baron? In Clear and Present Danger he takes us step by step through the procedure, walking us round the White House and the offices of CIA. (For some unfathomable reason, people who like the Central Intelligence Agency call it CIA, while those who dislike it call it the CIA. Answers on a postcard please.) He tells us who has the authority and how it is delegated, where the troops would come from, how they would be inserted. God knows what his sources are, but it is hardly surprising at all that Cap Weinberger KBE (for his services to Britain during the Falklands Campaign), is currently under indictment for offences during the Iran-Contra affair that are strikingly similar to incidents that occur in more than one of Clancy's novels.

Yet it is fair to say that Tom Clancy remains an uncontroversial figure in the British press for the very simple reason that he is never discussed at all. I have not noticed a single review of the new book, even though it was published during the notoriously slack publication period during August when literary editors desperately cast around for something to review. On the rare occasions when Clancy books have been mentioned, they have been briefly dismissed with contempt.

A couple of years ago Catherine Bennett wrote the article that appears in the highbrow papers every so often in which somebody goes through the bestseller list sneering one by one at the books that are on it. She mocked Clancy's The Sum of All Fears because it had hundreds of pages showing the construction of an atom bomb by a terrorist group. Yet this shows popular, ideological fiction at its most interesting. With his customary authority, Clancy demonstrates how an atom bomb can now be constructed with relatively few resources and for the point to be properly made we have to be shown, not just told. There is also an aesthetic cleverness about the exercise. Chekhov commented on the general artistic point that a revolver that is seen to be loaded in the first act must be fired in the third. As Clancy shows the bomb being loaded, the reader wonders if it will be exploded and rather wickedly hopes that it will in order to see what will happen. Chekhov's dictum is indeed obeyed. The bomb is detonated in Seattle, and, again with his customary thoroughness, Clancy shows us what a partial nuclear explosion (it slightly misfires) would do to a modern city.

A couple of months ago I suggested the idea of a profile of Clancy to the arts editor of a national newspaper and the reaction was rather as if I had proposed an indecent act on live television. We don't really do that sort of thing, he said fastidiously.

Serious analysis is rarely applied to popular fiction, especially when it is applied to work that is ideologically repugnant to the sensibilities of most literary critics. I remember seeing Terry Eagleton on television arguing that Rudyard Kipling was not—could not be—a great writer because of his endorsement of the British Empire. According to this criterion, literary criticism becomes a process of reading works in order to find what you already believe.

Another argument might be that the point of literature is to acquaint yourself with views of the world that are different from your own. Clancy's novels give a direct insight into what Robert Heilbroner has called the "paranoid style of American politics". Apart from other qualities they may have, these books are for anybody who has ever wondered what Nixon thought he was up to when he permitted illegal bombings of a country with whom he wasn't at war, or whether anybody believed the Star Wars programme could work.

What is curious is that while Clancy is a fundamentalist on many political issues and on matters of religion, he can be unpredictable.

 I doubt whether Glorid Steinem is a fan, but by traditional standards, Tom Clancy is a radical feminist. There are no docile women in his fiction. Jack Ryan's wife is a distinguished surgeon. A woman is in charge 01 CIA operations. Women fly planes, shoot missiles, kill on behalf of America, alongside the men. Uncomfortable but true, and revealing perhaps of a huge social change. If Toni Clancy is saying it, then ordinary people must believe it.

By the way, the answer to my earlier question is: the Japanese. According to Michael Crichton's Rising Sun and Clancy's Debt of Honour, it is all right to be as nasty as we like about them. Hmm. Somehow I don't than' our heart will ever be quite in it.