Friday, March 27, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: The Hunt For Red October

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.

Character Notes

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 Movie

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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: Red Rabbit

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!!!

Why Red Rabbit?
You may have noticed that Tom Clancy enjoyed the Cold War and was fascinated by the Soviets. Published in 2002, the book was probably written before the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which would alter the course of the later Ryan books.  From a character standpoint, it details Jack Ryan's time in London after the events of Patriot Games but before his submarine adventures. Red Rabbit showcases two previously undersung Ryanverse heroes, Ed and Mary Pat Foley (who isn't even Irish Catholic).  If you didn't get enough of the "Soviet government employee decides his government sucks and betrays them" plot device from The Hunt for Red October and The Cardinal of the Kremlin, then this is the book for you.

Already a hero in Britain for having saved the Prince and Princess, up-and-coming star CIA analyst Jack Ryan is lent to the British SIS Soviet group. While wowing his colleagues with his keen analysis, surprising wealth, and being way more important to Britain than they'll ever be, Irish part-time Catholic Jack learns that the Pope has written a dangerous letter to the Soviet leadership.  The Pope (only known by the name "Karol" in the book, never John Paul II) threatens to resign if the Soviets don't let his native Poland have more freedoms, siding with the Solidarity movement.  As Jack supposes, the Soviets decide to take out the political nuisance Karol.  KGB communications specialist Oleg Zaitzev is disturbed by this plot; he attempts to reach out to the CIA and secure safe passage to the West in exchange for his information.  Can the good guys act in time to save the Pope?

This plot is totally crazy and implausible, right?  Kill the Pope?

These Russian Babes are Pretty Beefy, amirite?
It's hard to escape references to how chunky Russian women are: 
On Zaitzev buying pantyhose for his lady: "'My wife is a real Russian,' he replied, meaning decidedly not anorexic."  We are impressed with the precision of the measurements.
On Zaitzev learning of his wife's bra purchase: "Those of Soviet manufacture always seemed to be designed for peasant girls who suckled calves instead of children - far too big for a woman of his wife's more human proportions."
On (Russian-American) Mary Pat's hotness compared to the Russian fatties: "Like a peacock among crows, her husband liked to say...She could not change her figure much - the local aesthetic preferred women of her height to be about ten kilograms heavier...Whatever, the level of fashion for the average Russian female was like something from a Dead End Kids movie." 

Rare picture of Tom Clancy not in his trademark aviator shades


Our paperback edition of Red Rabbit comes in at 636 pages, which is short for a Clancy book, but could easily be trimmed by 200 pages.  While Clancy books are usually larded up with lengthy descriptions of weapons and war machines, Rabbit is stuffed with repetitive pangs of conscience and self-questioning by Zaitzev.  Various characters having identical reactions to the potential assassination of the Pope along the lines of "I'm not a Catholic, but killing a priest is wrong" or "I'm not much of a Catholic, but even I know that this is wrong" or "I worship Satan, but even I adore the way JP2 rocks the hat and scepter."

Rabbit largely lacks an essential quality in a spy thriller: suspense.  While Zaitzev gets nervous that he hasn't contacted an American who can actually help him and the Foleys worry about the operation, the stories reek of inevitability.  Even the assassination attempt falls flat; the book discusses it dozens of times, but when we get to that point, we've spent more time reading about radios and positioning to prevent the incident than the actual incident.  The plot to get the Zaitzev family to the West is clever, but too much space is consumed repetitively discussing the details and there is little sense of jeopardy during the escape attempt.  Mrs. Zaitzev isn't even told that they're defecting until they're in Hungary. Oleg assures the CIA previously that it'll be fine, she'll do what she's told; it happens just like that. Mrs. Zaitzev has about three lines of dialogue in the whole book.  The novelty of having the Foleys in a major role is undercut by constant descriptions of Mary Pat as the cowboy type and Ed as the worry-wart administration type.  Tension between them is never mined for any real drama (keeping in mind virtually every married woman in the Ryanverse is a Saint and is always right).
Red Rabbit has a lot of good and entertaining elements - the assassination conspiracy is fascinating (and based on historical events and conspiracy theories around them) and the spycraft details are compelling and well-executed.  It's a collection of good ideas connected by underwhelming writing.

What About the Movie/TV Show to be Produced by WYNE Media?

If you wanted to add some depth, it could be a very entertaining mini-series; it wouldn't be hard to add some marital conflict and more tension in the Zaitzev escape, include some actual debate within the Russian leadership, and cut out all of the repetitiveness.  As it stands, it would make a stellar movie, like a Bourne film with more purpose and direction.  Considering how much Vlad Putin behaves like fictional Soviet leadership, it could be a very timely retro movie. 


19 references to vodka, 18 to wine, 30 to coffee (including the phase "they didn't know beans about coffee"), 5 to beef/steak (including a Brit admitting that American beef is better), 17 to tea (drunk exclusively by Brits except for Zaitzev, the defector).

"I serve the Soviet Union" is a frequent refrain between the KGB employees in the book.  A former coworker and I would say this to each other at least daily to mock our employer.  Why did I get laid off from that company?

Herein a character is named Dominic Corso and one with the name Hendley.  These names are recycled as Dominic Caruso and Gerry Hendley later on in the Campus-based books.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: Patriot Games

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!!!

Tom Clancy hadn't quite developed his fifty-seemingly-divergent-plots-converge-in-one style yet, so this one is fairly straightforward: Jack Ryan is vacationing with his family/doing research in London when he reflexively thwarts a violent attack.  It just so happens the attack is by an IRA spin-off group on royals Charles and Diana (never actually named, just like Reagan in the early Ryan books), so Ryan becomes a hero to the British and at target of the terrorists.  After an attack on his family, Ryan finally accepts CIA's invitation to join them and hunt down his enemies.

Beef with the Brits
As you'll recall, Clancy books process all cultural understanding through food, drink, and a handful of native phrases.  He respects the Brits and even their food, except these clods cannot cook beef to save their lives. This the first of many references to beef in the Ryanverse. These Brits are also constantly drinking tea like a bunch of pansies (soccer is also for girls).  Given Clancy's obsession with coffee, alcohol, smoking, and beef, I began wondering if his premature (and of undisclosed cause) death had something to do with these substances.   Per the Tom Clancy Wikipedia entry, one of his associates agrees with my speculation: "John D. Gresham, a co-author and researcher with Clancy on several books, attributed Clancy's death to heart problems: 'Five or six years ago Tom suffered a heart attack and he went through bypass surgery. It wasn't that he had another heart attack, [his heart] just wore out.'"

Bad Guys
The enemy in this book is the Ulster Liberation Army, which is to the IRA like ISIS is to Al Qaeda. Their leader, Sean Miller, is a trained and committed badass, but is crazily hung up on getting revenge on Jack.  His professionalism and skill cannot compete with Jack's luck and the fact that Jack is going to be in the next book.  As Marxists, the ULA overcome their racism to hook up with an African American Marxist terror cell to handle the logistics of their US attacks.  But perhaps the most nefarious opponent is Dennis Cooley, the antique book dealer/terror cell signals man who later joins the actual combat so he can be neatly wrapped up later.  Bad guys don't tend to go to jail in the Ryanverse.  The title of the book is contained in a speech by Jack's BFF Robby Jackson, which also sums up Clancy's feelings toward non-uniformed combatants: " They're playing a game, Jack.  There's even a song about it.  I heard it at Riordan's on St. Patrick's Day. 'I've learned all my heroes and wanted the same/To try out my hand at the patriot game.'  Something like that.  War isn't a game, it's a profession.  They play their little games, and call themselves patriots, and go out and kill little kids.  Bastards...I don't much like the Russians, but the boys that fly the bears know their stuff.  We know our stuff, and both sides respect the other.  There's rules, and both sides play by 'em.  That's the way it's supposed to be."  Honor goes to the professional, the trained man who has worked hard, honed his abilities, and plays by agreed-upon rules; the unprofessional and disorderly are worthy only of elimination.

Action in Patriot Games is as you'd expect: crisp, detailed, and exciting.  The book starts off with a bang, then slooooooooows dooooooooown. There are about 100 pages of this: Jack recovering uncomfortably in the hospital. Jack chews out The Prince, but then feels uncomfortable about it. Jack uncomfortably attends royal parties and uncomfortably receives royal honors. Cathy and little Sally are super comfortable being lavished with attention and special treatment when they're not shopping (babes love their shopping and luxuries!) and don't understand why Jack doesn't just chill the hell out.  They see the sights of London before Ryan uncomfortably flies back to the USA, where he can finally get a decent steak, but it isn't as uncomfortable because they're on a Concorde flight.

Sean Miller being broken out of prison also frees the book from that dull stretch.  Clancy presents realistic scenarios for how the organizations work (CIA, ULA, British intelligence, etc.) and how they interact.  The characters still don't sound like human beings, but when weapons are out, all is well.  Ryan's self-flagellating inner monologue is one of the few character-building tools Tom Clancy employs, but it tends to repeat itself.  In the end, training and coordination prevail over any other factors.  The author is a great lover of process - professional training, formal education, craftsmanship in assembling weapons, experience in preparing meals) - and it shows in his characters and how he steers plots.  If you read this (or any of his books) as a popcorn movie with flashes of nerdy attention to detail, it's an entertaining read.

What About the Movie?
The movie actually does a good job of trimming the fat of the book.  Replacing "The Prince" with "Lord Holmes" doesn't serve to make the plot any less outlandish and probably undermines the urgency of the conflict.  Sean Bean is well-cast and while Harrison Ford is too old for Jack Ryan at that stage of his life and career, he's a great fit for Ryan's combination of sharp mind and everyman approach to life.  We prefer Sean Miller's fate in the book, which is telling of Jack's character, but we're never against a boat explosion in a movie.

While in order of publication The Hunt for Red October technically introduces Jack's BFF Robby Jackson first, Patriot Games is his real debut.
21 references to coffee, 21 references to beer, 20 references to drinks, 7 references to wine, and of course the remarks about beef.  R.I.P., Tom. (Note to self: eat a salad tonight)
Anne Archer is really boring as Cathy in the movie.