Looking back on it, Tom Clancy's success seems as improbable as the fate of the protagonists in his many best-selling novels. The Bear and the Dragon to be released later this month, is the 11th novel from this prolific author. He has also created a successful fiction series (Op-Center) and written several nonfiction works on military topics. Not bad for a former insurance salesman.

Thomas L. Clancy, Jr. was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1947. He graduated from Loyola College with a major in English before settling into life as an insurance broker. Like so many English majors, he dreamed of writing a novel. In Clancy's case, his hobby of warfare became the inspiration for that novel; the technology of warfare, in particular, interested him. An avid gun collector, he eventually moved on to the study of more high-tech weaponry.

In the early 1980s, Clancy read about the captain of a Soviet frigate attempting to defect to Sweden, and the seed of a novel was planted. The Hunt for Red October was eventually published by an obscure military press. It was the first work of fiction for both, and only about 14,000 copies were printed. After President Ronald Reagan read it and pronounced it "the perfect yarn," the book shot up the New York Times bestseller list.

Sales climbed when the Navy and other intelligence sources expressed consternation at Clancy's technical accuracy. Despite the rumors, he isn't a retired spy he's simply a diligent researcher. He's been debriefed by Pentagon officials and is required reading in military colleges.

Success has brought personal gain as well as personal cost; he has a fine house overlooking Chesapeake Bay, but he's been swindled in a stock scam. He's been criticized for his technology-as-hero approach, but Clancy himself decries the "techno-thriller" label attached to his fiction. He's seen three of his novels become hit movies, and his Op-Center creation has become a TV mini-series.

The entertainment press is abuzz with talk of Ben Affleck taking over for Harrison Ford as the third actor to play Jack Ryan. All of this sets the stage for the forthcoming release of The Bear and the Dragon, wherein converging forces of Russia and China present President Jack Ryan with a crisis of devastating proportions. Can there be any doubt who will rule the bestseller lists in the fall?

Jim Webb writes from Nashville.

comments powered by Disqus