Obituary: Tom Clancy / Writer's specialty was in details

April 12, 1947 - Oct. 1, 2013

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Tom Clancy, the insurance salesman who became an author so popular that Forbes magazine said in 2002 he "can produce a guaranteed best-seller just by writing two words: his name," died Tuesday night in Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore after a brief illness. He was 66. No cause of death was announced.

Mr. Clancy popularized the military techno-thriller. Most featured derring-do by Jack Ryan, the fictional hero whom in the course of 17 novels Mr. Clancy took from a CIA analyst and Naval Academy professor to two terms as president of the United States.

His 18th novel, "Command Authority," will be published later this year.

Four of Mr. Clancy's books were made into movies, with Jack Ryan played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford (twice), and Ben Affleck. A fifth movie, with Chris Pine as Jack Ryan, is scheduled for release on Christmas Day.

Mr. Clancy also wrote several non-fiction books about the U.S. military and co-founded Red Storm Entertainment, a developer of video games. He was also a part-owner of the Baltimore Orioles.

Mr. Clancy amassed a fortune estimated at more than $300 million -- not bad for an author who, before his first book was published, wanted simply to write one good enough to be listed in the Library of Congress index.

It was. "The Hunt for Red October," published in 1984, about the defection of a Soviet submarine, was based on a real incident and was so realistic that Navy Secretary John Lehman said, only partially in jest, that if Mr. Clancy had been in the Navy, he'd have had him court-martialed for leaking classified information.

Mr. Clancy, who had to drop out of Army ROTC at Loyola University in Baltimore because of poor eyesight, decided to take that as a compliment.

If Mr. Lehman hadn't been a fan initially, he became one. Mr. Clancy is "the military's Boswell," Mr. Lehman said in a review of one of Mr. Clancy's later books.

Many in the military were Clancy fans because he appreciated what servicemen did and especially because he tried so hard to get the details right, and usually succeeded.

Novelist Pat Conroy told USA Today that his father, a Marine Corps fighter pilot, "loved how Clancy got into all the military intricacies."

When his son would note Mr. Clancy was never in the military, Donald Conroy would say: "Yeah, but he cares about the military and about getting all the details right."

My favorite Clancy novel was "Clear and Present Danger" (1990) because he captured so well how light infantry train and fight.

Critics often mocked Mr. Clancy's writing style. "Mr. Clancy's undistinguished prose is serviceable enough not to impede the flow of his narrative," wrote Robert Lekachman in a review for The New York Times of "Red Storm Rising" (1986). "His characterizations are on a Victorian boys' book level. All the Americans are paragons of courage, endurance and devotion to service and country."

But Mr. Clancy's books were good reads, too. "The Hunt for Red October," Pat Conroy said, "is one of the great page turners of all time."

It was published by the U.S. Naval Institute Press, a small house in Annapolis that never before had published a work of fiction. Mr. Clancy was paid $5,000 for the manuscript. The initial press run was for 14,000 copies.

"The Hunt for Red October" shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list after President Ronald Reagan, who'd been given a copy as a Christmas present, quipped at a dinner party that he was losing sleep because he couldn't put the book down. It eventually sold 6 million copies. Reagan's endorsement was especially pleasing to Mr. Clancy, a longtime supporter of conservative causes.

After "The Hunt for Red October," each new Clancy novel went straight to the best-seller list. Some were eerily prescient. In his 1994 novel "Debt of Honor," the villain flies a jumbo jet into the U.S. Capitol during a joint session of Congress.

"Tom's novels have always been prescient, whether they were about technology or military tactics or geo-political maneuvering," his editor, Tom Colgan, told USA Today in 2011.

Born in Baltimore on April 12, 1947, Mr. Clancy stayed close to home, in a mansion in Calvert County. His marriage to Wanda King ended in divorce after 28 years in 1999. Later that year, he married Alexandra Marie Llewellyn, a freelance journalist. He is survived by her, their daughter Alexis, and four children from his first marriage.

His books were becoming formulaic, his heroes long in the tooth, but the military men and women and the intelligence professionals he admired -- and who admired him -- will miss Mr. Clancy very much.

"He was a consummate author, creating the modern-day thriller, and was one of the most visionary storytellers of our time," David Shanks, an executive for Penguin Group, his publisher, said.

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The Associated Press, the New York Times, and USA Today contributed to this report. Jack Kelly is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration.


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