Saturday, November 21, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: Dead or Alive

In this series of posts, we're reading Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series (including the Jack Ryan Jr. and John Clark books) in its own chronological order rather than the publication order.  Your comments are more than welcome, but tread lightly: SPOILERS AHEAD!


Barack Obama Ed Kealty is running the country into the ground. He's scrapped Jack Ryan's tax reforms which helped rejuvenate the economy, politicized the military, and politically correct-ed the nation's intelligence services, gutting their HUMINT capabilities. Not really an effective foil to our good guys, his main job here is to perform so badly as president to compel Jack to get back in the fray.

Among the victims of the intelligence community's purge of operators are our old stalwarts John Clark and Domingo Chavez. With their terms at Rainbow coming to a close (but not before one. last. job.), they're RIFed by the bumbling politicians running the CIA now. Hardesty joins them up with Hendley Associates where they're lavished with generous salaries and wondrous benefits to be assassins (Clark having been deemed "too old" for the Campus's work in the last book, but whatever. Clark's back!)

First Sergeant Sam Driscoll becomes the target of a Kealty administration witch hunt. He leads a team that kills enemy combatants while asleep in their cave in Afghanistan. Team Kealty seizes this as an opportunity to show they're against military excesses and moves to try Driscoll for murder. An intervention from our old friend General Diggs asks former president Ryan to intervene on behalf of a good soldier. Ryan's public comments help scuttle the trial and Jack helps him get a new job after he's expelled from the military. We'll let the reader surmise where. Sam gets a dramatic entrance and then isn't used much thereafter.

Jack Ryan Sr is bored. He's writing his memoirs, one version for publication soon and the other for decades in the future, and hasn't found a way to be useful to others. The scenario echoes Debt of Honor where he's golfing and fattening his bank account, yet feels empty. Arnie van Damm, apparently bored in the university life, drops by to convince Jack to run for president. It's a fairly simple seduction, and that is pretty much it for Jack Sr in the book, other than the conversation with his son about doing dangerous intelligence work.

Having gotten a taste of field work in Rome, Jack Ryan Jr is lobbying the senior Hendley folks to let him train as an operator. He stresses his bona fides of having learned shooting with the secret service and now that old family friend John Clark is on board, he has a natural trainer. Jack Jr helps save the day in the final terrorism attempt, but not before having to tell his father that he works at the secret murder shop his dad set up. Senior offers to tell Cathy, advising his son to continue to lie to his mother who will know he's lying, but that helps them all cope.

Ryan cousins Dominic and Brian Caruso fly around the world beating and shooting people up until an intelligence op in Libya goes bad. We have a sad first in the Ryanverse: Brian is our first major good guy to be killed in action. Minor or one-book characters have been killed and major characters have passed away (and Robby is killed off-page, much to the chagrin of the series), though Brian is the first to actually die in combat. We'll cover this more in the review section.

People from the Emir's organization pay off sketchy Russians to transport them to abandoned sites to steal nuclear materials for sort of a giant dirty bomb. We spend a lot of pages on these boats, like a long and boring ferry tour of Russia's north coast. The terrorists waste the sketchy Russians because they leave no trace and no witnesses.

The Emir is a bin Laden-esque terror mastermind, engineering attacks across the world to distract the intelligence services from his main target: creating a nuclear seismic event which will poison the water for most of the western United States for decades to come. His other hobbies include hookers and having hookers offed who seem too talkative. After having plastic surgery and very cleverly sneaking into the U.S., he runs his terror operations from Las Vegas, as if that city needed any more violent scum living there in addition to Floyd Mayweather.

Coauthor Effect

Tom Clancy had used coauthors and slapped his name on books other people wrote in dozens of side series, but never had writing help in the Jack Ryan stories. The shift here is clear, with both positives and negatives. Remaining are research-heavy technical details - weaponry, tactics, organizational structures, etc. - but seem to lack the series' previous intellectual curiosity. In previous entries, details about submarines or bombs or aircraft felt like your friend excitedly droning on about his favorite subject nobody else in the group really cared about, but here feel like reminders that the authors know what they're talking about. From here on out, the action is centered less on larger military units and big equipment (the Navy's previously prominent role diminishes almost entirely) in exchange for action by smaller teams and gritty, hand-to-hand/in-close combat.

We wonder what changed for Clancy in the seven year gap between Teeth and Dead. It's not like he was hurting for money in the meantime. During that period, 15 or so Clancy-brand books were published, numerous hit video games were released, and residuals from 3 hit movies, royalties from a dozen #1 bestsellers, dividends from his stake in the Orioles, and many other investments kept him in fine wine and cigars. We suppose he realized he can get back in the Jack Ryan game by sucking it up and having a coauthor do most of the work, so he called upon his buddy Clive Cussler's right hand writer, Grant Blackwood. Maybe we'll do a series of blogs on the books Blackwood wrote as solo author if we ever get around to reading them.


If The Teeth of the Tiger felt like a thinly veiled Tom Clancy personal travelogue (nice hotels in European cities, fancy meals, expensive cars, hanging around the Baltimore/D.C. corridor), Dead or Alive expands the series' geographic horizons. The story takes us to rural Sweden, the Russian coast of the Barents sea, Brazil (a petroleum plant and the city), southeast Washington state, Libya, rural Nevada, and probably a few more I'm forgetting about. Teeth mostly took the series out of the White House and other government agency headquarters, and Dead almost takes us out of capitals altogether, a major transition for this series.


Aside from having the title of a supremely cheesy Bon Jovi song, Dead or Alive is a refreshing reversal of the downward trend of the previous 3 or 4 books. The writing is reinvigorated: dialogue is more natural, the repetition eliminated, and the pacing keeps the reader engaged. Dead has a lot of interesting tidbits about intelligence gathering and operation execution, like a brief historical account of the usual futility of torture/enhanced interrogation. Our major lament with this book, and with any of Clancy's work, is the paucity of emotional exploration of the events, especially setbacks. Brian's death and aftermath are handled in a macho way, without much in the way of sorrow but respectful in a soldierly way. Characters don't change much, except Dom is temporarily shell-shocked when Brian is killed. It would be un-Clancy-like to explore the emotional ramifications of these events, maybe mix things up with some conflict between the protagonists, so the story just keeps plugging along. Campus leaders make an unbelievably dumb decision to put him back out in the field immediately, a stupidity which is barely addressed. We would have been interested to see what would happen when somebody had to tell the Carusos' parents or inform the Marines that Brian had died. Would they lie or give a thinly veiled version of the truth? What would happen if outsiders had questions about what went down? In real life, like in the case of Pat Tillman, families and friends have questions regarding how their loved one died, but this series is not interested in those stories.

As if speaking for the reader, John Clark points out some serious deficits in the Campus's structure. The Campus relies on the existing intelligence community, creating unfillable deficits in information they need. Their workflow is too bureaucratic. We don't see any of these problems actually being solved, but as the Campus books go on, we see an unexplained mushrooming in the Campus's resources and abilities - foreign and domestic contacts, weapons, vehicles and transportation specialists, training capabilities, or whatever else the story calls for.

We had a chuckle and a chill at Clark and Chavez's One. Last. Job. at Rainbow; a chuckle because of the silliness of the inclusion of the trope (it's not as though the book lacks for action) and a chill because of the attack on a diplomatic facility in Libya. Sure, it's the Swedish embassy in Tripoli and not an American consulate in Benghazi, but the perpetrators are from Benghazi and there are echoes of the attack that took place in real life a year later. We'll cover the Clancy books' prophecies in our post on Command Authority.

Coverage of Dead or Alive frequently refers to it as a convergence of Clancy all-stars, which isn't truer than many of his other books. Ryanverse characters end up working together all the time. Jack Sr, the Foleys, Clark/Chavez, the submarine folks Mancuso and Jones, Russian frenemies Golovko and Bondarenko, Diggs and Hamm, FBIers Dan Murray and Gus Werner, and more are constantly present. Teeth of the TigerWithout Remorse, and Rainbow Six are the only real divergences in favored heroes being absent or less prominent. Almost all of them got to take the previous book off, so one could say this is a return of the all-stars.

It's nice that this series create a real reason for an analyst to be in the midst of the action. Jack Jr actually seeks out and receives training in this and the next book, and actually is given a field work job. The Hendley elders give brief consideration to the fact that sending the son of a former U.S. president might not be the best way to run covert operations, but it's quickly glossed over. Jack Jr's visibility is addressed again in Locked On and Command Authority, so at least it's on the writers' minds.

The WYNE Media Production

As addressed in the previous post, we'd do the Ryanverse books up until Teeth of the Tiger as an anthology series, approximately a book per season (episode numbers could vary) and do the campus books as their own series (title pending). We'd keep the basics of the stories, probably tossing out the hooker subplot, and let the characters ask themselves why they keep doing this thing. Soldiers and cops understand that they're putting their life on the line, but what happens to a soul and mind when their friend (or brother in the book) bleeds out next to them in the back seat? Which are the ethical ramifications to paying people lavishly to illegally kill people, even if it is to defend their country? Shouldn't there be conflict after they capture the Emir as to what to do with him? The Campus is a story factory that we really like that we want to love.


Another coauthor effect: the famous babes getting name-checked are updated; Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Alba get shout-outs.

Around this time, Putnam decided to start publishing all of the Jack Ryan books with these generic clip-art-looking covers. And the title, Dead or Alive? Not inspired.

Totally inspired: for the first time in the series, we get maps and diagrams of regions and facilities, tapping into our love of cartography.