Share this article

print logo

Tom Clancy, masterly author of techno-thrillers, dies at 66

Tom Clancy, whose complex, adrenaline-fueled military novels spawned a new genre of thrillers and made him one of the world’s best-selling and best-known authors, died Tuesday at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He was 66.

Ivan Held, president of G.P. Putnam’s Sons, his longtime publisher, did not provide a cause of death. His lawyer, J.W. Thompson Webb, said that he had a short illness but declined to comment further.

Clancy’s debut book, “The Hunt for Red October,” was frequently cited as one of the greatest genre novels ever written. With its publication in 1984, Clancy had created a new kind of potboiler: a dense, superdetailed espionage thriller packed with technical details about weaponry, submarines and intelligence agencies.

More than 100 million copies of his books are in print. But their impact has reverberated far beyond the publishing world.

Clancy’s books, starring virtuous CIA agent protagonist Jack Ryan, were adapted as Hollywood blockbusters starring Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin and Ben Affleck. He arranged for his thrillers to be turned into video games that were so realistic, the military licensed them for training. And on television, fast-paced technical espionage in the Clancy mold found a place in popular shows such as “24” and “Homeland.”

Once a middle-class insurance salesman in Maryland who wanted to be a writer, Clancy submitted the manuscript for “The Hunt for Red October” to a small publisher. An editor there, Deborah Grosvenor, was mesmerized by the book, a Cold War tale that takes place on a Soviet submarine.

Grosvenor initially had a hard time persuading her boss at the Naval Institute Press to read it, since Clancy was an unknown and the publisher had no experience with fiction. She was concerned that there were too many technical descriptions and asked Clancy to make cuts. He complied, revising the novel and trimming at least 100 pages.

“I said, ‘I think we have a potential best-seller here, and if we don’t grab this thing, somebody else would,’ ” Grosvenor, who is now a literary agent, said in an interview. “But he had this innate storytelling ability, and his characters had this very witty dialogue. The gift of the Irish or whatever it was, the man could tell a story.”

They paid $5,000 for the book, publishing it in 1984. It became a runaway best-seller when President Ronald Reagan, who had been handed a copy, called it “my kind of yarn” and said that he could not put it down.

Born to a middle-class family in Baltimore on April 12, 1947, Clancy became obsessed by naval history from a young age, reading journals and books whose intended audience was career military officers and engineering experts.

He attended Loyola College in Baltimore, where he majored in English, and graduated in 1969. While Clancy harbored ambitions to join the military, even joining the Army ROTC, he was told that he was too nearsighted to qualify. Before turning to writing, he had began working at a small insurance agency in Maryland.

He followed “The Hunt for Red October” with “Red Storm Rising” in 1986, “Patriot Games” in 1987, “The Cardinal of the Kremlin” in 1988 and “Clear and Present Danger” in 1989.

Seventeen of Clancy’s novels were No. 1 best-sellers on the New York Times list. He often spoke of the laserlike focus required to succeed.

“I tell them you learn to write the same way you learn to play golf,” he said. “You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right.”