Clancy’s first published novel, The Hunt for Red October, became a runaway best seller. Writing at a time of heightened Cold War tensions, Clancy touched a deep chord. Soviet submarine captain Mark Ramius is disillusioned by the communist system and the Soviet state. His wife, a former ballerina, died on an operating table at the hands of a drunken doctor who, because of his Communist Party connections, was not punished for his misdeed. The leading Soviet expert in submarine tactics, Ramius decides to defect to the United States.
A number of themes common to Clancy’s work appear in The Hunt for Red October. His knowledge of submarine technology and tactics carries the reader into an underwater world that, because of the technological framework, seems more fact than fiction. The Soviets do not want a nuclear war, but they might resort to war to recapture Ramius and his submarine, and power divorced from morality could well destroy the world. Ramius, driven by family feelings and moral considerations, transcends a system that has proved to be an evil failure.
On the other side is Jack Ryan, a consultant to the CIA. Because he is only a professor of history, he lacks the authority government office might give him; he is neither a high-ranking military figure nor a politician. Ryan is an Everyman who is willing and able to do what is necessary. Eventually, Ryan boards the Red October and is forced to kill a committed young communist who has been ordered to sink the submarine rather than have it fall into American hands. Although his submarine is damaged, Ramius sails his ship into an American port. Ryan has received an education in the necessity of using power, political and military, to maintain the good society: It is not enough merely to write about history.
As in all of his stories, Clancy brings together a number of subplots and numerous major and minor characters. Even if the politicians are not always dependable, the officers and men of the military invariably excel. Well trained and motivated, they work together for the greater good of their unit and their country. Clancy makes numerous comparisons between the Soviet system and the freedoms to be found in the West. The book is not so much a story of “good guys” and “bad guys” as a contest between a system that has failed and one that, in spite of individual human weaknesses, is the last best hope of humankind.