Why Without Remorse?
By this point Jack Ryan, brief Marine/history professor/stock broker/desk jockey at CIA had already hijacked a Soviet nuclear sub, dismantled an Irish terrorist sub-unit, forced the defection of the USSR's intelligence chief, rescued a unit of covert troops in South America, and prevented nuclear war. One can imagine Clancy was ready to channel his cockamamie yet well executed plots through a different character.
John Clark, né John Kelly, was introduced to us in Clear and Present Danger as the badass in charge of America's secret war on the drug cartels who nearly ends the Jack Ryan series when he thinks Ryan is behind cutting off the soldiers in Colombia. In Without Remorse, we get a bit of an origin story of the future polylingual badass who will be in charge of executing virtually every major armed intelligence operation for the next 40 years.
Our primary setting is in the Baltimore area, starting at the end of 1970/beginning of 1971. Having recently left the Navy SEALs for civilian life as an underwater demolitions expert, John Kelly loses his new wife in a tragic car accident. Months later, he picks up a hitchhiker, Pam, with whom he strikes up a hasty romance. They start to heal each other's wounds, his from losing his family and hers from falling into drugs and prostitution. Kelly takes a stupid chance in helping Pam bring her former pimp to justice, resulting in her getting killed and him nearly so. And in a way completely unrelated to Steven Seagal's classic film Hard to Kill, Kelly seeks revenge on anybody who ever may have possibly hurt or insulted Pam, and does so...without remorse.
Jack Ryan's dad, Emmett, is the detective in charge of finding the mysterious expertly trained/polite/murderous hobo who is taking down a host of local pimps and scumbags. He eventually puts 2 and 2 together.
Colonel Robin Zacharias, air combat mega-genius, wreaks major havoc on North Vietnamese radar defense systems. In a daring raid, he is shot down and captured. The North Vietnamese just want to use him as a punching bag, but Soviet intelligence officer Colonel Grishanov discovers Robin's value as an intelligence source and, improbably, as a friend.
The military and CIA work together to discover and then rescue American POWs. I imagine the operation would be more of the province of DIA to handle than CIA, but that doesn't really work for getting John Kelly/Clark to meet Jack Ryan in the CIA.
We'll cover this topic in greater depth in future posts, but Tom Clancy's female characters usually come in one of two forms: saint or shrew. Pam the prostitute is actually a saint, but one in the making. Here's how you can tell: all of Clancy's honorable women can really cook. Pam starts off as a horrible cook, but as Kelly and his new friends the Rosens help her become a better and healthier person, she also learns to cook. Clancy has an unfortunate propensity to qualify women's looks rather than just describing their appearance. Pam is hot but too skinny when we first meet her. Sarah Rosen, brilliant clinician and compassionate human, is described thusly: "She was a rather dumpy woman, short and overweight. All in all she looked like the sort of woman who, behind the wheel of a car, attracts the hatred of male drivers." Drivers like Tom Clancy perhaps? The prostitutes are actually treated with empathy, written as victims rather than cancers on society. Women are to be protected by Clancy heroes.
Heroes in the Ryanverse tend to be well-educated, polylingual Catholics who have served in the military; bonus points for being of Irish descent. Kelly, whom the CIA rechristens Clark in the book, can almost check off all of these boxes but lacks the formal education of the usual Clancy hero. What he lacks in diplomas he abounds in School of Life accolades, naturally very smart and analytical. The CIA will train him in a variety of skills later.
Bad Guys and Xenophobia
Ultimately Clancy's books value competence above all. The Ryanverse very much respects Russians, British, Germans, and Japanese for their skill and strength even when those characters are the enemy. But Clancy has no use for those he deems uncultured, like the Vietnamese, Chinese (heaven help us when we get to The Bear and the Dragon), or various Middle Easterners. Clancy generally isn't all that interested in the "why" of the bad guys or in describing them in human terms, but even less so if they aren't willing to put on a uniform and show their face for their cause.
The bad guys in Without Remorse are a diverse lot: vicious southern white pimps, Italian-American mafiosi, a cunning black drug dealer, a crooked cop, traitors in the U.S. government, vicious Vietnamese prison guards, and a Russian intelligence officer. Of these, only the latter is given much humanity, and he's the only one who doesn't meet a violent end. Clancy doesn't deal in loose ends (even a couple of mobsters who murdered a tertiary character in Pennsylvania get taken down). In Ryanverse, dumb people die first, untrained second, and the skilled/trained last. Eventually, bad guys only survive if the good guys want them to, e.g. they want information or to preserve their own humanity (like Jack not killing Sean Miller in Patriot Games).
Clancy's strength as a writer include research, details, plotting, big ideas, and being entertaining. His capacity for writing dialogue well doesn't really extend beyond the military and government people, and most of them end up sounding the same. Details of foreign-ness and other-ness are largely communicated in stereotypes (those Russians sure do love their vodka, British their tea, etc.) While descriptions of criminal activities are convincing, let's just say the speech of the Baltimore criminal population isn't exactly in David Simon's league.
Conversations between males and females in this book are excruciating.
In terms of building and interweaving plots, Without Remorse is, as you'd expect in this series, masterfully constructed. John Kelly's skill set makes him capable both to perform both a long-undetected murder spree (though the irony is that his training and previous relationship with the police is what gets him identified) and be desirable to the CIA's operations division. What strains credulity the most is the overwhelming ambivalence toward the aforementioned murder spree by everyone in his life who is aware of his crimes, people who are otherwise kind, decent, and law-abiding. Even the cops give him an hour to run away when they come to arrest him. It's not as if Kelly tries to make much of a case for his actions; he just informs his friends and bosses at CIA what he's done and what he's about to do and not one of them calls the cops or spends any significant time trying to make him stop; they all just agree that these bad guys have it coming, so why not let their friend John do the work, despite the danger to him and themselves? (Nevermind the morality or legality aspect.) The phrase "without remorse" apparently applies to every single character among the good guys.
Kelly's relationship with
The storyline of Robin Zacharias is a highlight of the novel. Tom Clancy gets to nerd out about weapons and tactics, but also gives a compelling account of Robin's journey of faith while in captivity. Robin is seduced by Col. Grishanov, lured in by his comfort and friendship: they're just two pilots talking about their love of aircraft and suspicion of common enemies. In this oasis away from his regular brutal routine, Robin starts giving away too much, personally and professionally. Grishanov is initially just playing the role of spy, but comes to genuinely like and respect Zacharias. While not a precise comparison, it's a bit like those teen movies in the late 90s where the guy asks the girl out only as a bet, but comes to truly have feelings for her (10 Things I Hate About You, etc.) When Robin realizes his unwitting betrayal of his country and his faith, it's a rare poignant moment which compels Zacharias to recenter on his most important principles to help him endure his imprisonment.
Without Remorse is part typical revenge thriller, part Clancy here's-where-the-government-is-actually-competent layered fiction. As with most of his work, there are few surprises and the outcomes feel inevitable, but there is a bit of a twist in the POW rescue mission story. Tom always does a good job of creating a vivid environment in action scenes and almost always is clumsy in interpersonal portrayals. It's mostly an entertaining read, but is his darkest and brutal work by far.
Would It Make a Good Movie?
It could, but like most Clancy novels, given their length and intricacy, it would be better served being a mini-series or longer (I think the Ryanverse books would make an excellent anthology series). In order to make a great movie, you'd have to address the whole "everybody is fine with serial murder because they're bad guys" thing, make the Pam romance longer and more natural, and have people talk to each other like actual human beings. The tension built as Kelly is training for his rescue mission in Vietnam and completing his self-appointed mission in Baltimore could be very cool on film if done right. Ryan Gosling could play a young John Clark and someone like Aaron Paul could play Robin Zacharias.
A Wikipedia user figured out the time frame based on references to the Song Tay POW raid, which took place in November 1970, and ongoing references to the MLB season, culminating in the 1971 World Series between the Orioles and Pirates. (Tom Clancy would later become a minority owner of the Orioles.)
Jack Ryan makes a cameo appearance as a college student visiting home from Boston College; his father teases him about joining the Marines.
The way the drug dealers get their product in country is ingenious and sad.
Kelly hunting the drug dealers as a hobo is terrifying.
Tom Clancy is obsessed with coffee: a Google search of the book suggests there are 35 references to coffee. Good guys also drink beer in the Ryanverse (32 mentions), except the LDS ones: Zacharias is one of many Mormons kicking butt for Uncle Sam.