Thriller writers Clancy, Deighton face a changing world in different ways

August 11, 1991|By George Grella

THE SUM OF ALL FEARS. Tom Clancy. Putnam.

798 pages. $24.95.


Len Deighton. HarperCollins. 410 pages. $21.95. Certain distinct forms of the thriller flourish in particular times, like the classic detective novel in the period between the two world wars or espionage fiction during the Cold War. A number of thriller writers in our day have grown wealthy exploiting contemporary unease and keeping up with the headlines. Now that those headlines report the demolition of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the rise of democracy in Eastern Europe and the collapse of communism everywhere, some of those same writers may be undergoing some troubled introspection in casting about for likely subjects.

It's probably not surprising that two successful but quite different practitioners of the thriller -- both known for the apparent authenticity of their works -- handle the rapid changes in international politics in characteristic ways. Len Deighton has written many witty, compelling novels about the practice of modern espionage, balancing a knowledge of modern history with a sometimes comic sense of the treachery and idiocy of the British establishment. Tom Clancy has earned fame and fortune producing blockbuster techno-thrillers about a continuing group of characters who must save the world, or large portions of it; his books demonstrate an unseemly and embarrassing reverence for authority and provide the current vice president of the United States with his knowledge of defense policy.

Mr. Clancy apparently has decided not to change his ways at this stage of his career, so "The Sum of All Fears" is depressingly similar to his previous five novels, only longer. This time the author breaks new ground -- his hero, Jack Ryan, drinks too much cheap wine (an odd habit for a millionaire) and suffers from impotence, which though anatomically inaccurate, might be called displaying feet of clay. Otherwise, it's the same as before: a dozen different stories with scores of cardboard characters all creaking stiffly toward a grand, stagy climax.

Even after a long and prolific career, Len Deighton, on the other hand, seems willing to experiment drastically in tone and direction. In "MAMista" he displays an inclination to study a subject out of Eric Ambler and map the moral landscape of Graham Greene. He forsakes the wise-up first-person narrator of most of his spy fiction, moves from Europe to South America, and examines a Marxist guerrilla movement, the MAMistas, in a post-Marxist world. Where Mr. Clancy shows a bunch of assorted terrorists collaborating to build a nuclear bomb and precipitate World War III, Mr. Deighton deals with the convolutions of foreign policy that draw the U.S. government into collaboration with a Communist revolutionary army. Both writers recognize the new realignments, but only one is willing to venture into uncharted territory to suggest some of the sad truths those realignments create.

Truth, of course, has never concerned Tom Clancy; he's always preferred fact, which is quite another business. Naturally, "The Sum of All Fears" is crammed with information about jet fighters, missile systems, atomic submarines, satellite uplinks, computer enciphering and things like the "sintering process for tungsten-rhenium." Amid all that, and so much more, not one acceptably human character, speaking believable dialogue and behaving in a more or less convincing manner, can survive.

Where Tom Clancy is laboriously complicated, Len Deighton is subtle and complex, examining the engagement of some believable men and women in the violent politics of revolution. His protagonist is an Australian physician who goes to Spanish Guiana on a mission of mercy for an English medical foundation, but finds himself working for the MAMista guerrillas against the right-wing dictatorship, the Central Intelligence Agency and competing revolutionary factions. The nation, which depends heavily on cocaine, also possesses a potentially rich oil reserve that attracts the attention of the CIA, which mounts a brilliant deception, corrupting all sides under the guise of a guerrilla operation. In addition to its picture of high-level manipulation and maneuvering, the book tells a heroic and gripping tale of a doomed trek through the jungle that ends in chaos and tragedy.

Coincidentally, the two novelists choose the same major villain, the national security adviser to the president of the United States, which suggests something about current perception of that position. Their respective handling of the character usefully distinguishes the writers.

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