Tom Clancy was the author whose work most inspired me to write. His work has spawned countless movie adaptions—the Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, the Sum of All Fears—and video games—Rainbow Six and its many sequels, Splinter Cell and its many sequels, and so on. Clancy has shown an unusual willingness to add his name to anything spy-related as long as it earns him so extra money. Most of the books that have come out bearing that name in the past few years have had a coauthor’s name in small print below, and their quality has deteriorated significantly. Even some of his later, non-coauthored books weren’t as good as readers had come to expect. The glory days of Clancy are long gone, and I haven’t yet found an author in the genre that replaces his combination of quality writing, incredible detail, and amazing action. Many of the popular writers of spy thrillers today make Dick Cheney look liberal and aren’t afraid to show it (Brad Thor), set up good characters but don’t write convincing action and fail to adequately wrap up story lines at the end of the book (Ted Bell), or write great stories but do so poorly (Dan Brown and many, many more). Although Clancy wrote more an extraordinarily large number of awesome novels, here are my five favorites (Mild spoilers follow):
5) The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988)
Much of this book takes place in Afghanistan in a time when most Americans had no idea where that was or why it was an important place in deciding the fate of empires. The spy drama involving Jack Ryan facilitating a high-level defection and an incredibly valuable mole for the United States is Clancy’s best, and the technical details about the end-of-the-Cold-War race to develop a defense against nuclear weapons are fascinating. Kremlin is less heavy on action than some of the other books, but by no means less interesting.
4) Debt of Honor (1994)
Imagining the circumstances where the United States must retake many of its Pacific possessions after the end of the Cold War, this book strays far from the cliché path of Soviets or Chinese or religious extremists versus America. Although when I read this I skimmed many of the details about how the stock exchange works, they’re there if you want them, and if not, the twist at the end makes the whole thing worthwhile. In a scene that I will never forget and had to re-read to make sure that it really happened, Clancy essentially predicts 9/11 on an even more devastating scale nearly a decade before it happened.
3) Patriot Games (1987)
As the first Clancy book I ever read, the grenade unexpectedly exploding in the middle of page seven really gets the plot moving. In Patriot Games, Clancy proves that he’s the master of the lengthy buildup; aside from that first, fleeting action sequence and another scene in the middle to remind the reader of the stakes, everything that happens in the middle serves only to build the characters towards one of the most satisfying climaxes in novel history.
2) The Hunt for Red October (1984)
Clancy’s body of work proves that he has an enduring fascination with submarines, and so should you. No other book does an equal job of capturing the intricate details, the challenges, and the stakes of the decades-long chess game between the Soviets and Americans where each vied to build the more silent nuclear-powered submarine that they could send to the shores of their opponent stuffed with enough firepower to kill millions. Jack Ryan at his finest and the movie adaptation features Sean Connery doing a preposterous accent.
1) The Sum of All Fears (1991)
Out of everything that Clancy has written, this was the most difficult to put down. He walks the reader through just how a nonstate actor could acquire and construct a nuclear weapon and then proceeds to do the opposite of what you’d expect: he lets it go off. That’s a key part of the narrative; what follows is even better. This book has it all: suspense, detail, political maneuvering, disaster, and how to recover from it. Sum is the perfect story to capture the absurdity of the cold war and how easily the doctrine of mutually assured destruction can lead to utter ruin.
Honorable mentions: Executive Orders and The Bear and the Dragon
The scale of these books is, in many ways, much greater. Jack Ryan has become President and he’s not going to be running around submarines trying not to get shot by KGB agents; he’s directing the action from the White House. Although I really disagree with Clancy’s political message here—which is hard to escape—the political element is still interesting, and the premises of each are fascinating. The description of the Ebola virus plot in Orders is chilling and the ICBM launch sequence at the end of Dragon is one of the tensest scenes I’ve experienced in a book. My problem with each is that since the scale is bigger, the action tends to deteriorate into scenes describing rather abstract military tactics by characters that the reader isn’t particularly invested in. Still, these stand head and shoulders against most of the new stuff on the market today.
By all means pick up one of these books if you enjoy spy novels or if you’ve enjoyed one of the movie adaptations in the past. The books are much, much better, and if you like them, please try my book, The Men Behind the Curtain, available on Amazon.com.