You've been on pins and needles for somebody to review the books your dad was reading when you were in middle school; we're here to help. Last year, we read all of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books in order of Ryanverse chronology rather than order of publication (we include the John Clark and Jack Ryan Jr. books in this process). This year, we're doing it again and posting about each of the books as we complete them/manage to be sufficiently unlazy to actually post a blog. Your comments are more than welcome. NOTE: POSSIBLE DECADES-OLD SPOILERS!!!
Completely Pointless Information
In selecting the image we use for the blog post, we try to use the same book cover as the one we've read. This cover is a reminder that once upon a time he wasn't TOM CLANCY, just a dude slingin' insurance at his grandmother-in-law's agency (insert obligatory "with a passion for naval history" reference).
Marko Ramius is a gifted Soviet submarine commander who has been entrusted with leading the USSR's new crown jewel of undersea defense, The Red October. The sub is the peak of Soviet military engineering and becomes the tool of his revenge against his corrupt government: he's going to steal it and give it to the Americans. Having hand picked a group of officers of a similar mind, he races off to the West before he can be discovered.
Analyst Jack Ryan continues his meteoric rise up the ranks of CIA's intelligence directorate. Shuttling between his temporary home in England and CIA headquarters, Jack is the first to sniff out that the Soviet nuclear submarine is not on a sanctioned mission but is in fact defecting. Given his connections with the better-positioned British and as the main character, Jack is thrust into action to help Ramius safely achieve his designs.
Tom Clancy always liked to add little dashes of story to his characters, but Marko Ramius is one of the few who really get an extended back story. The description of his past does a great job of informing his motivation and how he could have pulled off the sub heist attempt in the first place.
For a main character, Jack is barely in this book. Our attention is fairly evenly distributed among CIA, various U.S. vessels, The Red October, and the Soviet government. We learn very little about Jack himself except for his fear of flying, his bluntness, and his ceaseless formality.
The Hunt for Red October was written as Tom Clancy's best effort to stop selling insurance and actually write for a living, and the work shows through. The details are meticulous and the writing is enthusiastic. It's not as smooth as his later works, but Clancy earned a degree in English, and his training is evident. The skipping from location to location feels kinetic and not choppy. Many readers are put off by what they may consider overly lengthy descriptions of machines and processes (we're not keen ourselves), but these passages add to the realism of the stories. With this book, if Clancy didn't invent the techno-thriller, he made it mainstream.
On an emotional level, a unique issue THFRO addresses is how the machinery of state and cultural engineering affected people personally (it's addressed even better in The Cardinal of the Kremlin). Official atheism deprives Marko Ramius of mechanisms for coping with grief available in religion; institutional Russo-centrism diminishes his opportunities as a Lithuanian despite his impeccable record; nepotism and corruption prevent justice being enforced on the malfeasant doctor who took his wife's life. The emotional resonance of his story isn't matched in other characters, who tend to be admirable and/or interesting, but don't connect with the reader in the same way. The book is an outstanding debut and a template for what made Tom Clancy great.
The film version was the third great movie in a row directed by John McTiernan: Predator, Die Hard, and Red October. Very nice work, John McTiernan! (We'll ignore that his work included Last Action Hero and Rollerball.)
We understand that given the political climate at the time, it was unlikely to have a lot of Soviet actors available, but the casting of Russians who have more than a couple of lines is fairly hilarious: a Scot, an Aussie (dude from Jurassic Park), a few Brits, and a Swede. They probably should have not bothered to have anybody speak (terrible) Russian rather than using the device "now that we're zooming out, all of the Russkies speak English." Alec Baldwin is way too smooth to be the Jack Ryan of the books, but the performance is good. If you were to take this to mini-series, the Soviet side of the story could be more authentic and dwell more on Marko's drive and planning. A solid movie altogether, but it'll be a better season in our anthology series.
The music in the movie is awesome:
Tom Clancy's first reference in his continuing interest in the more ascetic aspects of Mormon lifestyle: Dr. Randall Tait eschews anything with caffeine, "though this type of self-discipline was unusual for a physician, to say nothing of a uniformed officer, he scarcely thought about it except on rare occasions when he pointed out its longevity benefits to his brother practitioners."
Apparently Clancy wasn't living the good life quite yet: the book contains relatively few references to coffee or alcohol, none to beef, but 20 or so references to smoking.
Clancy loves him some Texas and the University of Texas. Arthur Moore and Bob Ritter are Texans, and Lt. Earl Butler is the first of a number of Longhorns in the Ryanverse.
The Hunt For Red October sets up the next two books Ryanverse beautifully (in real world chronology - and yes, Red Storm Rising, a work not within the scope of what we're covering). Reference is made to Jack's heroism later covered by Patriot Games and to the CIA's effort to penetrate the Soviet government, to be covered in the next blog post.
Hunt was originally published by printing behemoth Naval Institute Press. President Ronald Reagan loved it and mentioned it in a Time Magazine article, which was the beginning of Tom Clancy's ascent into fame. It didn't hurt that the well-spoken-of president in the books is an unnamed but thinly veiled Reagan. Clancy remained grateful to the President throughout his life.