The Blue Jays defeated the Orioles a week ago Tuesday, and one of the Adopt-A-Book titles for this week’s fundraiser is Duty and Honor. What do these two circumstances have in common (albeit obliquely?)? Tom Clancy! Both are testaments to Clancy’s capacity to generate profit, even after his death…. Clancy, who died on October 1st, 2013, bought 24% of the Orioles in 1993, and when his shares were sold posthumously he had realized a cool $230 million in profit. The Hunt for Red October was published in 1984 and was the first in a series of astonishingly successful novels which brought Clancy into national and international prominence. In fact, Ronald Reagan publicly praised the work as “the perfect yarn”. Clancy was subsequently wined and dined by the president, introduced to Soviet defectors, given restricted-area tours in U.S. bases, and went on to publish works which fooled many into thinking he was a military-industrial complex insider. After 9/11, he was asked to do expert interviews by the media because of a plot line that he had used in 1994’s Debt of Honor, involving a Japanese kamikaze terrorist crashing a jetliner into the American Capitol.
He shared the gift with John Le Carré of being able to construct an absolutely believable, seamless atmosphere through a language which was born of an encyclopedic familiarity with specifics of the tradecraft—the minutiae of intelligence operations (Le Carré) and politics and weaponry (Clancy). Readers were typically left in an ironic position, struggling to fully comprehend the motives and actions of the characters who moved effortlessly through the hyper-nuanced and terrifying fictional world.
Perhaps the first thing to understand is that Tom Clancy’s Duty and Honor is not written by Clancy at all, but by a surrogate writer, Grant Blackwood. Even before his death Clancy relied on a series of co-writers to assist in maintaining his pace of publication. Since his death, the Clancy estate has relied on various writers to maintain the franchise.
In Duty and Honor, Jack Ryan Jr., son of the famous Jack Ryan of Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, and Sum of All Fears, is on a “forced leave” from The Campus, “aka Hendley Associates”, an ultra-high level, top-secret US secret service organization. He starts to get mugged leaving a convenience store, but rapidly finds himself in a life-and-death struggle with a trained assassin.
He survives the attack, and takes up the mystery: Who is out to get him? And why? Thus commences a breathtaking series of events which sees Jack Jr. join forces with a young European journalist, Effrem Likkel, in the pursuit of answers. Jack and his accomplice work at unearthing a complex network of intrigue, involving brainwashed Manchurian-Candidate-like agents, cyber-terrorist attacks (one of which targets our own Ontario!!) and an international plot to destabilize world democracies. The duo cover a lot of ground—the story begins in Virginia, but Munich, Zurich and Namibia also see plenty of action.
Sidekick Effrem Likkel, making up in enthusiasm for a lack of combat and espionage smarts, at times comes across like a badly behaved child on a shopping expedition. He shows a resolute capacity to ignore advice along with an irresistible tendency to find trouble. Jack Jr. invariably says something like “Stay in the car, this could get dangerous!” and Effrem wanders off and gets shot, kidnapped, tortured, or worse. One can almost imagine Jack Jr. back at H.Q: “Next time, you’re staying HOME!” Truth be told, his chronic abductions do give rise to interesting chase sequences!
Young Jack, though deprived of the usual technological resources, manages to procure a series of weapons and gadgets, including GPS trackers, night-vision goggles, AK 47s, a snub-nosed .38, along with an “HK USP45 with “Gemteck Blackside noise suppressor” which proves extremely efficacious at picking off miscreants with a minimum of muss and fuss. Bodies stack up with frightful regularity; Blackwood shows remarkable imagination in dispatching the dramatis personae. Characters are grazed, winged, singed, burned, blown up, spun around, set back on their heels, shot in the eye, dropped, mowed down, have their legs taken out from under them, and are generally subjected to all conceivable varieties of perforation and ventilation. (One lost track of the body count at around 20 or so). Fortunately Jack manages to stay ahead of the ensuing mayhem, quietly leaving the scenes of violence as emergency vehicles, sirens blaring, come to mop up. A leitmotif is Jack Jr.’s impetuousness, which seems to have played a role in his forced vacation from The Campus. With this body count, and Jack’s tendency to clod-hop where angels fear to tread, one suspects that his holiday might be prolonged even further (I‘ll say no more! [spoiler alert…spoiler alert!])
Vintage Clancy this ain’t. Clancy’s works always merited charges of prolixity, some of his more substantial efforts amounting to 800 densely printed pages. But the overwhelming technical detail utterly transported the readers. In Duty and Honor one sees this technical detail extended to the contents of a grocery bag: “ground beef, beans, peppers, onions, tomatoes and bok choi”. Sometimes technical complexity is gratuitous…. Say, for argument’s sake, you are in the middle of a field operation and someone texts you on the phone, and you’re not sure that it’s really that person at all—might it be a miscreant pretending to be that person??? What’s an agent to do??? Choice is clear: (1) Leave the readers in suspense for 20 pages while we suss this out, or (2) Simply ring up the person who is texting, and ask, “Is it really you?” Then later, say you want to make a surreptitious money payment for arms. Do you (1) order a soda in an opaque plastic cup, along with a napkin, glug half of the soda down, make hapless Effrem drink the other half, swab the cup out with the napkin, put the $600 in the cup, and carry the lot around with you until the arms purchase, or (2) simply hand the cash over at a discreet and appropriate moment? The 425 pages of comparatively well-spaced large print were certainly easier on the eyes, but left a certain craving for the concentrated intensity of vintage Clancy.
Even so, Duty and Honor is a satisfying work in the genre, and one can almost see the movie potential. Given that many readers have The Hardy Boys’ Franklin W. Dixon and Nancy Drew’s Carolyne Keen in their formative backgrounds, the concept of syndicated authorship is not something new!
Adopt-A-Book, which started on Wednesday, will continue Friday 10:00-5:00 and Saturday 9:00-1:00. Come to 101 Queen St. to support the Library!
(Review originally published in The Record, October 2016)