A few weeks back, I wrote about re-discovering an old friend when I re-read The Hobbit, and of how it and a lot of other good books got me through my teen years. Some of those books included Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books (especially the Camber series), some of Andre Norton’s books (Daybreak 2250 A.D. comes to mind, as well as Quag Keep), and quite a few others.
On another front, I spent hours traveling the frontier—whether that frontier was the Blue Ridge Mountains of the 1600s or the West of the 1800s—with Louis L’Amour. Mr. L’Amour was able to transport me to another world just as effectively as Tolkien or Kurtz, except this world was back in time to our discovery of this wonderful continent we live on.
Somewhere in there I discovered Robert Ludlum. I’m not sure anymore what spurred me to try one of his books, though I suspect it was Katherine Kurtz, as strange as that might sound. But there is a connection: intrigue.
Ms. Kurtz’s books were filled with it. It’s a staple of high fantasy, though I didn’t know that term back then. I didn’t know how to describe it, except to say the characters spent a lot of time trying to out-plot one another.
Mr. Ludlum’s characters were likewise engaged, but his stories generally involved the Cold War in some way. I loved reading about how they’d make a call on a payphone and only stay on it for less than two minutes before moving on to another one. How they used false identities, cutouts, and all the other methods of subterfuge that made the cloak and dagger setting so fascinating to me.
When I went into the Army, my reading fell off quite a bit, and for a number of reasons. It started because I simply didn’t have the time. Then I got interested in music and partying (at about the same time, of course) and didn’t have much interest left over for reading. I’d do some along the way, but not a lot.
I started calming down in 1985 and, on one of my trips to the PX to look at their books, I saw this gray book with a Russian submarine on the cover. If I remember right, the first few times I spied this book (no pun intended), I didn’t bother with it. But it kept popping into my mind. I couldn’t bring the title to mind, but I could see that cover.
I’ve learned over the years to trust my instincts, and I did so then. Since I couldn’t remember the title, I almost didn’t find the thing. In those days, the PX displayed its paperbacks on racks a lot like you still see in grocery stores, except they didn’t bother to make all the stacks the same book. You had to dig through them to see what was being offered.
I finally found it, picked it up, and in the inside flap (it was one of those with two front covers), one of the blurbs was from President Ronald Reagan.
That book was The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.
We lost Mr. Clancy a short time ago, dead at the age of 66. He’d taken a hiatus from writing (I’ve heard it had something to do with a divorce, but I haven’t been able to confirm that), but lately he’s been publishing books at an almost furious rate, as if to make up for time lost.
I haven’t kept up with a lot of his later books, but I can still remember getting wrapped up in Red October, having a hard time putting it down. I was in the military, and here was a book that spoke to me. Sure, it was all naval stuff, so I didn’t know exactly what all this gear was he referred to, but it was still military, and I could identify with it.
I ate it up. And grabbed up Red Storm Rising when it came out. For a long time, I read every new book he published. I loved Clear and Present Danger (which I want to re-read now) because it involved more conventional ground forces like I was familiar with (these days I want to read it because it addresses the clear and present danger of the Colombian cocaine trade from the 80s). The Cardinal of the Kremlin was great because it let me see more of the mysterious John Clark, an
operative who was a lot of help to Jack Ryan (Mr. Clancy’s main character) in Patriot Games.
But when I think of Tom Clancy, I always think of The Hunt for Red October. When he wrote that book, he pretty much invented the techno-thriller. And if he didn’t invent it, then he certainly pushed it into the mainstream of thriller readers.
Red October is, for me, another one of those old friends. It’s in a different vein than The Hobbit, not only because it’s not fantasy, but because it’s not necessarily one that made me want to write. At least not as much as The Hobbit did. All the books I’ve ever read have made me want to write in one way or another, either because I wanted to see if I could do as good, or because I knew I could do better (I didn’t finish reading a lot of the latter).
I’m writing this not only because Mr. Clancy died recently, but also because, just a few days ago, I was looking through my bookshelf and saw my copy of Red October. It’s a paperback, gray, with a silver periscope on the cover and a Russian sub in the viewfinder (which also serves as the second O in the word October). I picked the book up, looked at the cover a bit, then opened to the first page:
Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for the Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Fleet submarine base at Polyarnyy.
Maybe not the most exciting opening sentence ever, and probably wouldn’t pass muster these days, but to a guy in the military during the closing days of the Cold War (though we didn’t know it in 1985), it was an attention-grabber. Here’s the enemy, a captain of a Russian submarine, deploying for duty. And you could bet it wasn’t gonna be a patrol sub. Oh, no. No way. This had to be a missile sub—called a boomer in the trade—carrying nukes to threaten America.
I sat down and read the first few pages and had to force myself to put it back. Even though I’ve read it several times, it still had me wanting to see what would happen next. No, not much happens at first, but it gets intriguing fast when Ramius kills Ivan Putin, the zampolit, or political officer, before they even get fully deployed, then replaces their true orders with some he’s made up on his own.
I see I’m running long with this post, and I hope you’ve stuck with me so far, because I want to say this: if you’ve not read The Hunt for Red October you should give it a try. Yes, the movie with Sean Connery was good, and he portrays Marko Ramius admirably. But as is true in most cases, the book is far richer than the movie could ever be. Even if you’re not a fan of techno-thrillers or even thrillers in general, I think you might find this one engrossing.
Even if you do already know we “won” the Cold War.