Found on the shelves of prestigious governmental officials, in the homes of ex-military men, or on the coffee tables at beach getaways, Tom Clancy novels have shared immense popularity among a variety of readers since the first one was published eleven years ago. Moving beyond the novel, Clancy's name by this decade has further extended onto blockbuster films, a children's book series, a non-fiction series, and even an entertainment corporation over which he presides. All of this acclaim and these spin-offs have followed in the shadow of his novels' constant success. Directly following the number-one best-selling book of 1988, Clancy's The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger was the number one bestseller of 1989. Previously, Clancy's Patriot Games was ranked as second best-selling novel in 1987 and his Red Storm Rising was also second best in 1986. Furthermore, Clancy's The Sum of All Fears was number two in 1991, Without Remorse ranked fourth in 1993, and Debt of Honor ranked second best-selling in 1994. Clearly, something about Clancy's novels has taken flight among readers, and not only nation but world wide. Why is this so? What do Tom Clancy books teach us about the quality, content, birth, or reception of bestsellers?
The wide Clancy fan base can be attributed to a variety of literary and social aspects. He has constructed a unique, yet formulaic, style of recognizable components that invites consistent support. These components are based on the factual, militarily-based prose, the recurring series of characters, and the reality-based events that are referred to in his novels. After defining them by style, Clancy books more notably are further identified by their placement into recognizable categories of bestsellers, including the David and Goliath type stories, the military novels, the political and/or social commentary novels, and those novels with celebrity authors. Thus, the overall dominant appeal of a Clancy novel, such as Clear and Present Danger, seems to be the tendency of his books to have seemingly realistic governmental and military slants, in addition to Clancy himself possessing an oddly familiar persona to that of one of his main characters, Jack Ryan.
The factual prose of Clancy's style has been praised by some for being so intriguing, as if the readers were actually bypassing all security and were privy to a behind-the-scenes conversation in the CIA or the White House. It is this realism that makes many have a hard time separating what is fiction in Clancy's novels from what could possibly be (or once was) reality. However, here is also where Clancy is criticized though because his work is so close to the truth. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman once argued that it seems that Clancy could have been court-martialed for revealing classified evidence, that is, if he were actually in the government and were privy to such facts. Indeed, Clancy though prides himself on this authentication throughout his works and constantly insists that every piece of information that he attains is gained only through legitimate, public scrutiny of public documents or viable human resources. Naturally then, over the course of time that he has spent writing military-based novels, Clancy has gathered an extensive array of vocabulary terms, dialects, insider lingo, and other seemingly exclusive pieces of information that it comes to him easily and seems more and more real. Further enhancing his abilities were all of the connections Clancy made with government officials and military officers since the inception of his writing career and public acclaim, including Presidents Reagan and Bush, Vice President Quayle, and former Secretary of State Elliott Abrams and former Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. In addition to meeting with and talking to such individuals, Clancy's credibility is backed by his visits to military bases, to The White House, time spent on a submarine, time allowed to drive an Army tank, and frequent tours of the FBI, CIA, and Pentagon. Especially since Clear and Present Danger was written as the fifth novel in just five years, the credibility of Clancy's highly intriguing authentic prose was reaching its point of mastery, drawing upon an ever-growing loyalty base of fans who are fascinated by this type of writing in a novel.
Similarly, in addition to the actual technical prose of his novels, the places, events, and situations described are always so relevant to the present day or recent past events in U.S. history that propel readership and bestsellerdom of Clancy novels. The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, for instance, all dealt with Russian versus United States conflicts, while Patriot Games turned to the Irish Republic rebellions and IRA versus United States conflicts. Uniquely then, Clancy turned to a different side of the globe, going south for the conflict in Clear and Present Danger between the Colombian cartels and the United States government. This slant towards a focus on the drug trade was particularly savvy and politically ingenious for Clancy, as the late 1980s were a time of high insurgency and proliferation of the drug trade. As with the political nature of his other books, readers looked to the subject matter and seeming authenticity of this novel for answers to burning questions about the drug trade and what was going to be done to curb it. Clancy himself said that the particularly personal reason for writing this novel in the first place was because he was "scared to death about them [his children] having to live in a world infested by drugs" (Phillips). Furthermore, many reviewers have noted the close following of the production of this novel after the Iran-Contra scandal and have questioned, to no avail, Clancy's motives for such potential commentary on that situation as well. Though nothing was admitted, it is all too familiar that Clear and Present Danger reveals a plot of CIA conspiracy with the foreign cartel, while withholding information about such dealings from the President, the FBI and United States. Just the May before this book was first published, former Marine Oliver North was indicted on conspiracy charges regarding how the National Security Council and CIA kept the President and Congress purposely uninformed on the secret trading of arms for hostages in Iran. Therefore, it is again this reality-based fiction that Clancy uses in his novels to attract a large number of curious readers who seek either a sense of explanation about past events or a sense of exclusive information that non readers would not obviously have the privilege of learning about. Thus, Clancy's novels seem to provide this entertaining yet simultaneous learning experience for his readers, further making them enticing bestsellers.
In conjunction with the realism and pseudo-authenticity of Clancy's novels, speculation can be made towards how Clancy might have incorporated some of himself into his character, Jack Ryan. Much as Ian Fleming was speculated to be suspiciously close to the character of James Bond and John le Carre to his protagonist spy character, Clancy's morality based, family and social values seem to correlate to Ryan's character in more ways than one. An old, personal family friend, who works for the FBI and used to be at the Pentagon often, once told my mother that he had been told that some of the main characters in Clancy's novels (the officials and officers, etc.) were partially based on real people whom Clancy had met and was fascinated by, and that if a correlation could be made, the initials of the character and real-life person would match!
Aside from the fact that the technical components make Clancy's novels appealing to certain readers, the other interesting side to Clancy's frequent bestseller success is the identifiability of his books into a few of the known best-selling categorical genres. Most notably is the genre of books whose authors' names propel them toward fame. Regardless of the quality of context or literary content sometimes, these books are destined from their conception to be on the bestsellers' lists due to their author's names.
Much like authors John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steel, and Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy novels are renown as soon as the hardbacks hit the book stores merely due to the last name of the author, which is ironically one of the most prominent features of all of these authors' book jackets. It is this loyal fan base of support that sustains each of these authors' success and practically assures their novels to be inherent successes from the start. Their subsequent acclaim and residual reviews or life on the bestseller lists, however, are subject to change according to the specificities of each book, as far as how well people receive it once they have actually read it. Regardless though, it is initially the celebrity status of these authors that enables their books to achieve fast, high-profiled acclaim as bestsellers.
Not only does Clancy's name push his books into best-selling leagues, but the fact that some of his characters recur throughout his novels is a big attraction to loyal fans. Even though Clear and Present Danger is not a sequel, it does specifically employ several of the main characters from his earlier Patriot Games, such as Jack Ryan, the Ryan family and Admiral James Greer. The recognition of these characters, though in an entirely different setting and plot, provides comfort and familiarity to readers. For those loyal readers the recurring characters provide a feeling of insight, of being somewhat privy to information about character backgrounds and personas that give heightened fascination to the present novel, as well as giving the loyal fans a sense of being ahead of the knowledge that a first-time Clancy readers experience. Clancy's sometime use of repeated characters further provides impetus for his books to be bestsellers, as an avid reader anticipates the tie-ins in each newly published novel, wanting to hurry and read it to find out who is back or not. For example, even though the plot is not a direct sequel to Clear and Present Danger, Clancy's 1998 hit, Rainbow Six, presents the former characters of John Clark and Ding Chavez again. Almost ten years after they appeared in Clear and Present Danger, it is interesting to see how Clancy develops the recognizable characters now as the older, wiser leaders of the missions. This sly tactic, as does the mere name recognition factor, thus propels an otherwise merely additional book by a certain author to automatic potential status of bestsellerdom. Yet, it should be made clear though, that Clancy does an excellent job of explaining the characters in each of his novels with just enough detail relevant to that particular novel. In such a clever way, Clancy allows a first-time reader to merely encounter another neat character while simultaneously allowing the experienced Clancy reader the satisfaction of being able to know what happened to this character many years ago and what all he has been through to get to this point, making him all the more believable and intriguing. Again, it is more of Clancy's genius at work with the authentic prose and locale references, at making recurring characters so believable that readers feel as if they are following genuine people's lives and sagas.
That Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger was made into a movie four years after initially being published is no mere irony. As with at least two others of his novels, the worldwide reception and acclaim for his works indeed propelled his novels from the bookstores to the best-selling lists to Hollywood. Though the movies vary substantially from the original print versions of the stories, the fact that they come from previous best-selling novels spurs on their fame and viewing audience of people enticed by the same things that enticed original novel readers. Whether a loyal Clancy reader since The Hunt for Red October or an ex Navy Seal fascinated by Clancy's realistic capture of emotional toil (as in Rainbow Six) or a C.I.A. official perplexed yet enticed by the authenticity and preciseness of government lingo and security references, Clancy novels possess such a wealth of unique, alluring qualities that make them virtually automatic bestsellers. Especially in the past decade of growing public awareness and concern with truth in government proceedings and the American ideal of honesty, Clancy's novels provide a perfect mix of military, political, and social scenarios and characters to be entertaining as well as subtly informing to a vast array of readers worldwide.
Shapiro, Walter. "Of Arms and the Man." Rev. of Clear and Present Danger, by Tom Clancy. Time 21 Aug. 1989:66-68.
Streitfeld, David. "Working up a Sweat." The Washington Post 14 May 1989: 14.
Thomas, Evan. "Dealing with Druggies." Rev. of Clear and Present Danger, by Tom Clancy. Newsweek 21 Aug. 1989:60.
Wise, David. "Just Say Nuke ?Em." Rev. of Clear and Present Danger, by Tom Clancy. The New York Times Book Review 13
Aug. 1989: 9.
Tom Clancy Web files http://users.cybercity.dlk
Joseph Maloney's essay on Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice