Tom Clancy didn't realize he was forever changing the spy novel back in 1982, while working in obscurity on his first book, a Cold War thriller centering on the defection of a Soviet naval captain and the technologically advanced submarine he includes in the bargain.
But then "The Hunt for Red October" was published, and things would never be the same — not for spy fiction, which was given new life by the detail-obsessed "techno-thriller" genre he invented, and certainly not for Clancy, who seemingly out of nowhere became one of the country's most prominent authors. Over the next three decades, the Baltimore native would not only write a series of best-selling novels but also see them form the basis of a successful movie franchise and inspire a run of best-selling video games.
"Tom Clancy defined an era, not just of thrillers but of pop culture in general," said Jon Land, marketing chair for the International Thriller Writers group and himself an acclaimed author. "No one encapsulated the mindset and mentality of the Reagan era more, as the Cold War was heating up for the last time and we were entering a new age of modern warfare. Clancy's books tapped into our fears and helped define our psyches, even as he reinvigorated the thriller genre by bringing millions of new readers into the fold.
"Very few writers can lay claim to creating a genre," Land added, "but the techno-thriller — that all falls at the feet of Tom Clancy. He was so ahead of the curve."
Not bad for a middle-class kid from Northwood who once admitted that he studied English only "because it was an easy major."
Clancy, who died Tuesday in Baltimore at age 66, specialized in a brand of latter-day Cold War fiction perhaps as well known for its attention to detail as its plots, characters or style. His nearly two-dozen books, best-sellers all (some, especially later in his career, written in partnership with other authors), got the details right — to the point where he was compelled to deny getting classified information from the CIA or other government agencies.
His readers loved him for it.
"He's the one that brought the military and the techno-equipment stuff into the mix," said Sessalee Hensley, a fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. "He got the armaments right. He put the right bullets in the right gun. Those readers, they're such sticklers for it being the right gun — if it were just a tiny bit off, those readers would have revolted. But they never did."
Clancy's work made him an important link in the chain of notable spy novel and thriller writers. Following in the wake of Ian Fleming's James Bond, John le Carre's George Smiley and the books of Robert Ludlum, Clancy and his hero, Jack Ryan, reflected both the political climate and the technology of the times.
"Writers like Robert Ludlum in his era, Tom Clancy in his era and Vince Flynn in this more modern era, they latched on to something, something that carried their work beyond pulp entertainment," Land said. "If you want to know what this country was thinking during the Reagan era, when the finger was nearing that red button again, read 'Red Storm Rising' or 'The Hunt for Red October.'"
Not long after he came out of nowhere to become one of the best-selling authors of 1985, Hollywood came calling. The first film based on Clancy's work, 1990's "The Hunt for Red October," starred Alec Baldwin as Ryan and Sean Connery as the Soviet commander.
Although it grossed $122 million domestically and helped make him a rich man, "Red October" was not a happy experience for Clancy. In a 2002 interview on C-SPAN, Clancy, who maintained a contentious relationship with those responsible for translating his work to the big screen, cracked that "selling your work to Hollywood is like turning your dog over to a pimp."
And yet, a steady stream of screen adaptations followed, all box-office successes. Harrison Ford took over the Ryan character with the second, 1992's "Patriot Games" ($83.3 million domestically) and reprised it in 1994's "Clear and Present Danger" ($122 million). Ben Affleck played Ryan in 2002's "The Sum of all Fears" ($118.5 million), parts of which were filmed in Baltimore. Chris Pine will portray Ryan in the upcoming "Jack Ryan: Shadow One," to be released Dec. 25.
"He didn't like the process at all," said Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. And while Jack Ryan never may have become a franchise star on the level of James Bond or Harry Potter, he did OK.
"Not only did Hollywood snap them up, they made them and turned them into good movies," Dietz said. "They had some stars in them, and they did well at the box office."
But success in the book and film worlds wasn't enough for Clancy, who would also become one of the first authors to lend his name and prestige to the budding video game industry. In 1996, he co-founded Red Storm Entertainment, to develop games based on his works; a year later, the first, "Tom Clancy's Politika," was released.