“This is going to be a grim job for all of us, to put it mildly, but it’s… important. We owe those victims our best work, whether we rescue anyone alive or only recover remains.”— James Greer in Commander in Chief
I am sure that I am not alone among The Imaginative Conservative community in having read many of Tom Clancy’s novels. Ok, I have read them all. A guilty pleasure? Perhaps, but a real and true pleasure to be sure. As with so many of my generation, I started reading Clancy while still in high school. And, amazingly enough, I read Red Storm Rising—a novel based on a full Soviet invasion of Western Europe and Iceland—while traveling by train across Austria, Germany, and Denmark in September of 1987. The fall of the Berlin Wall was only two years away, but, of course, among mere mortals, Ronald Reagan and the Pope uniquely had faith that the supposed fantasy of its destruction might actually become reality.
Red Storm Rising was an anomaly, as it turned out, for Clancy wrote most of his fiction around the central character of Jack Ryan, a historian-turned-financial-mastermind and CIA spy, before becoming—by many coincidences—President of the United States.
Clancy’s universe—known by his many fans as the “Ryanverse”—is pretty much our world until after Reagan’s presidency. From 1989 forward, the world of Jack Ryan is nearly identical to ours, but not quite the same. After all, in Clancy’s world, Jack Ryan becomes president. Too bad for us, as Ryan is an excellent president, a younger and firmer Ronald Reagan. If real, Jack Ryan’s would rank in the top-five presidencies of our history. But, alas, we have to remain content with him being a great fictional American character. In this, he ranks high as well. While no one can agree on “the Great American Novel,” we can agree on great American characters of literature and fiction: Cooper’s Natty Bumppo, Twain’s Huck Finn, Cather’s Latour, Finger’s Bruce Wayne, King’s Hanscom, and Clancy’s Ryan.
All in all, Clancy wrote nine novels with Ryan as protagonist. A tenth and eleventh revolved around the most important secondary character of the Ryanverse, John Clark.
In 2003, however, Clancy rebooted the series with Teeth of the Tiger. There is still continuity as established in the previous books, but the novel jumps forward to Ryan’s son, Jack Jr., becoming an analyst and spy, along with two of his cousins, Dom and Brian Caruso, long-time character John Clark, and Clark’s son-in-law, Ding Chavez.
President Jack Ryan, it turns out, has set up an extra-legal agency, Hendley Associates, known to its members as “The Campus.” Not hindered by bureaucracy or politics and financially prosperous, Hendley Associates dedicates every aspect of its being and existence to the security of the Republic. Tellingly, Clancy began Teeth of the Tiger with a quotation from George Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
With this generational shift of the characters, Clancy also changed the world setting. The first eleven Jack Ryan novels have a strong—if not absolute—Cold-War setting, whereas Teeth of the Tiger and his later novels reflect Clancy’s own take on a post-9/11 world. True to life, the morals become a little grayer, and the motivations of nation-states and their leaders are less clear-cut. Clancy well understood that the post-9/11 world is something far more chaotic and, in many ways, more dangerous. Ironically, Clancy’s own fiction probably explores the nuances of the present insecurities and instabilities better than most public-policy analyses.
Teeth of the Tiger is the last of Clancy’s Ryanverse novels to appear with his name as sole author on the cover. After a seven-year silence, Clancy’s novels returned to the bookstores, but as “Tom Clancy with…” Those co-authoring his books are Grant Blackwood, Peter Telep, and, most often, Mark Greaney. It is quite difficult to tell exactly who was doing the writing prior to Clancy’s all-too-early death in October 2013. My guess—and, please note, it is purely a guess—from reading various interviews with the co-authors is that Clancy wrote outlines and expressed broad ideas while the co-authors truly wrote the books. It is worth considering, however, the fact that it is very difficult to copy the writing style of another author. Mr. Blackwood, Mr. Telep, and, especially, Mr. Greaney have imitated Clancy so well that it is essentially impossible to know who wrote what. Some might think this a negative. To me, it is just downright impressive.
The last of the books written with Mark Greaney was Command Authority, published a year after Clancy’s death. At the beginning of the novel, the Russians invade Estonia, foolishly ignoring the smaller country’s membership in NATO. Having read everything written under the name of Clancy, I can state with confidence that this is one of the finest and most moving scenes in all his fiction. The author—either Clancy or, more likely, Mr. Greaney—brilliantly presents the invasion from the standpoint of a middle-aged Estonian school-teacher, Edgar Novak, who does the little he can to protect his home. As I read this, I could not help but imagine the men of Lexington, Massachusetts in April of 1775. They must have felt the exact same way. As I first read of Novak’s brave but ultimately futile defense, chills spread throughout my whole being. When the whole scene ended, I actually cheered aloud.
If, for any number of reasons, you stopped reading Clancy novels at some point, or if you have worried that the authors that have inherited his mantle cannot live up to the original, I encourage you—to the greatest extent possible—to pick up all these novels, without worrying whether Clancy played a role in their writing.
For all intents and purposes, Mr. Greaney is Clancy. I mean this in the best sense. A native Tennessean, born in 1967, Mr. Greaney’s writing breathes the spirit of both Clancy and Reagan. His characters, if anything, are even better drawn than were Clancy’s. His tales are gripping and plots captivating; however the characters are what stand out the most. They learn, they fail, they grow, and they succeed. And, bodily harm is pretty much imminent for every one of them.
Still, a good rule to follow when reading these novels is to love the characters without overly investing in him. Mr. Greaney has a knack—as did Clancy—for writing a compelling back story for even temporary and transitory characters, so that you can’t help but admire them. Main characters as well as side characters, though, fall. Sometimes they fall morally, and sometimes they fall mortally. No one is utterly safe in the Ryanverse. This is especially true of Jack Jr’s girlfriends. Just when you get attached, a bullet takes out a character. Thus far in the rebooted series, two of my favorite characters have given everything for the Republic.
Of the rebooted Clancy novels, Mr. Greaney’s latest, Commander in Chief, is certainly the best. This is in no way faint praise, as the novels are all gripping, thought-provoking, and expertly told. As mentioned above, Mr. Greaney simply “gets” the characters. He also understands the craziness of the current world better than any other author I have read. Our post-Cold War world is a very different one than the one our conservative spiritual godfathers, such as Russell Kirk and Christopher Dawson, saw. Rather than a world rent by ideologies, we live in a world that has seen strange fusions of various ideologies, swirling around and anchoring themselves on simple fundamentalisms. In ways that current academics and policy analysts simply don’t, Mr. Greaney understands the incredible complexity of our current world situation, and he describes them and parses them in rather beautiful ways.
Not only have I been reading Mr. Greaney’s fiction, I have been following him on Twitter and Facebook. He is a full-blown patriot, and I very much respect his opinions about domestic and world events.
In the latest novel, Commander in Chief, President Ryan—who has become a central character once again, all to the good—has to deal with the threat of a new, nationalistic, and utterly corrupt Russia. Not surprisingly, the media hates the president as do many of our “so-called” allies in the West. For all intents and purpose, Ryan stands alone against the forces of Hell, backed by the American military and a few Eastern European stalwarts. I will not go into the plot details too much, as the structure and plot of Commander in Chief are rivaled in brilliance only by the fascinating insights into the psychology of world players, but I can state that I am a better man and thinker for having read this book.
Let me finish with this: Mr. Greaney’s Ryans (father and son) are a lasting tribute to Ronald Reagan. Imagine another Reagan—a young, vivacious, brilliant, dedicated Reagan—following in the path of the fortieth president. Reagan was an American original, of course, and Jack Ryan (father and son) are his children. Mr. Greaney gets this very, very well.
I had a chance to email with Mr. Greaney (a very generous man) recently, and I asked him if he is working from any outline or direction from the deceased Tom Clancy. His answer was what I expected: no, this novel and the previous two are 100% his own. While we must always honor Tom Clancy as the creator of Jack Ryan, it might well be time to start giving credit to those who are perfecting Clancy’s creations. Mark Greaney’s Commander in Chief proves that his name deserves to be just as big if not bigger than Clancy’s on the cover of the novel. No disrespect to Tom Clancy, of course, but full respect to Mr. Greaney as author and analyst!
Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.