Only good pulp fiction holds up for decades. The late Tom Clancy’s debut work succeeds above all because of his Russians, foremost Captain Markus Aleksandrovich Ramius, who is Lithuanian by birth. The dignified Ramius is an informed skeptic (“a good man”) with rebellious streak (he “plans to wreak his vengeance on the Soviet Union.”) He’s disenchanted with a Moscow mechanism that sees war machines as merely a means to an end, and not an example of human genius.
This is anything but a monochromatic Cold War novel. Ramius’ erstwhile counterpart is Jack Ryan, a naval historian who doubles as a CIA advisor. When Ramius decides to push his westward toward defection with high-tech submarine, “The Red October,” the crew, Soviet leadership, Ryan, and the upper echelons of both the U.S. and Moscow military are enlisted into a plot as attentive to personality as to gadgets.
To be sure, Clancy, who writes in the third person, knows and loves all things naval — and he repeatedly struts his know-how. But he’s also cautiously ahead of his time: “It was one thing to use computers as a tool, quite another to let them do your thinking for you.”
The narrative is gripping not because of Clancy’s reams of impressive submarine homework (overwhelming at times) but because of his genre-busting willingness to establish and maintain empathy with the moral and political dilemma faced by his submarine Soviets. He gives the period’s “evil empire” a noble, human face that few other mainstream writers knew to accomplish in writing airport thrillers, which this is well more than a cut above. The reason for that is Clancy’s genuine interest in the Soviet mind, and the cat-and-mouse game between the two R’s, Ramius and Ryan.
Of writing, Clancy would later say: “You do it, and keep doing it until you get it right. A lot of people think something mystical happens to you, that maybe the muse kisses you on the ear. But writing isn’t divinely inspired — it’s hard work.”
Hard-worker Clancy later went a skilful step further in “The Cardinal of the Kremlin,” his least celebrated and perhaps most nuanced work. “Red October” was made into an inferior 1990 film by the same name.