Tom Clancy Clancy, Tom - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tom Clancy 1947–

American novelist and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Clancy's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 45.

Clancy is the best-selling author of popular thrillers featuring detailed military weaponry, high-tech espionage, and enthralling geopolitical crises. With the publication of his debut novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984), Clancy became a literary phenomenon, attracting a large and devoted audience that includes statesmen and high-ranking military officials. Several of his novels—The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games (1987), and Clear and Present Danger (1989)—have been adapted into blockbuster Hollywood films. Considered an originator of the techno-thriller, a genre of contemporary fiction embodying combined characteristics of the thriller, spy fiction, and science fiction, Clancy's patriotic, strongly anti-Communist novels appeal to the atmosphere of national pride, military supremacy, and political conservatism at the end of the cold war.

Biographical Information

Born Thomas Lanier Clancy Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland, Clancy was raised in a middle-class home by his father, a mail carrier, and mother, a department store employee. An avid reader as a child, he soon developed a fascination with military machines and space technology. He attended local Roman Catholic schools, then enrolled at Loyola College in Baltimore, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1969. While at Loyola, Clancy joined the U.S. Army Officers' Training Corp, but poor eyesight prevented him from serving during the Vietnam War. Clancy married Wanda Thomas the summer after his college graduation and immediately began work as an insurance agent in Baltimore; Hartford, Connecticut; and then Owings, Maryland, at a small insurance firm owned by his wife's grandfather. After purchasing the family company in 1980, Clancy found spare time to study military journals and revive his desire to write. Four years later he published The Hunt for Red October through the Naval Institute Press, a publisher of scholarly titles that had never printed an original work of fiction. Through enthusiastic word-of-mouth endorsements, including a fortuitous comment by President Ronald Reagan who praised the book as "a perfect yarn," The Hunt for Red October shot up best-seller lists to become an unexpected hit.

The incredible popularity of Clancy's first novel was duplicated by Red Storm Rising (1986), produced with the help of war game expert and friend Larry Bond, Patriot Games, The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears (1991), Without Remorse (1994), Debt of Honor (1994), and Executive Orders (1996). With the enormous international sales of his novels, Clancy became one of the most popular and financially successful authors of the 1980s. Three of his novels have been adapted into films—The Hunt for Red October in 1990, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, Patriot Games in 1992, and Clear and Present Danger in 1994, both starring Harrison Ford. Clancy has also produced several nonfiction studies of military organizations and tactics, including Submarine (1993), Marine (1996), Airborne (1997), Armored Cav (1997), Fighter Wing (1991), and Into the Storm (1998). He currently resides at his estate overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in Huntingtown, Maryland.

Major Works

Clancy's techno-thriller novels revolve around description of advanced military technology and intelligence operations employed by American government agents to subvert the nefarious machinations of international antagonists—mainly Soviets, Middle Eastern extremists, and terrorists. While the instruments of war and espionage figure prominently in his Fiction, Clancy's novels also feature heroic male protagonists whose devotion to country and family underscore their superior moral authority and the triumphant destiny of the United States and its allies. In most of his books this central character is represented by Jack Ryan, a brilliant, though modest and happily married ex-Marine, CIA consultant, stockbroker, and scholar with a doctorate in economics and history. Ryan first appeared in The Hunt for Red October, a suspenseful thriller about the defection of a Soviet nuclear submarine under the command of Marko Ramius, a discontented Russian officer who seeks asylum in the United States. Pursued by both Soviet and American navies, Ramius survives a harrowing underwater chase, torpedo assaults, and a mutinous plot, and is guided to safety by Ryan and Bart Mancuso, captain of the American submarine Dallas. Clancy's second novel, Red Storm Rising, describes a future world war waged between the United States and Soviet Union with conventional weapons. The plot is set in motion when a key Siberian oil refinery is destroyed by Muslim fundamentalists, causing an energy shortage in the Soviet Union. The Russians respond by orchestrating a terrorist attack on their own people, used in turn as a pretext for invading Central Europe and Iceland while seizing Middle Eastern oil fields. Unlike other Clancy novels, Ryan is absent from the story and the protagonist role is shared by several American servicemen. Ryan reappears in Patriot Games to rescue members of the British royal family during a botched abduction scheme conducted by the Ulster Liberation Army, a fictional Maoist faction of the Irish Republican Army. Ryan is knighted by the British and befriended by the Prince of Wales, and returns to teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where members of the ULA track him down to take revenge on him and the visiting royal family. In The Cardinal of the Kremlin, Ryan is embroiled in a complicated espionage scheme involving a jeopardized American spy in the Kremlin and the high stakes race between the United States and Soviet Union to deploy a "Star Wars" anti-ballistic missile defense system. Clear and Present Danger turns to the subject of powerful South American drug cartels and the American war on drugs. In this book, a U.S. president tacitly approves aggressive covert military operations against Colombian cocaine farmers and drug traffickers. When Ryan, now acting deputy of the CIA, discovers the unconstitutional American involvement, he intervenes to rescue betrayed U.S. soldiers cut off deep in the Colombian jungle to perish with their secrets. The Sum of All Fears follows the drastic efforts of an anti-Zionist faction to undermine a recently forged Vatican treaty, proposed by Ryan, to end hostilities among Israelis and Arabs. The terrorists, an amalgam of Arab extremists, European mercenaries, and a Native American activist, detonate a pilfered nuclear weapon in Denver, Colorado, during an NFL Super Bowl game, bringing many casualties and nearly drawing the United States and Russia into war. Without Remorse features another major Clancy protagonist, John Kelly, a former Navy SEAL who returns to Vietnam with specially trained Marines to rescue American POWs. Set in the early 1970s, Kelly abducts a ruthless Soviet agent in Vietnam to force a diplomatic solution and, at home, secretly exterminates a Baltimore drug ring to avenge the brutal murder of his girlfriend. Due to his role in covert activities, John Kelly becomes John Clark with a new identity provided by the CIA. Jack Ryan reemerges in Debt of Honor as a national security advisor, then vice president of the United States, at the center of an international crisis stemming from strained economic relations between the United States and Japan. War breaks out when the Japanese government, newly installed with imperialist corporate tycoons, sabotages American financial markets, invades the Mariana Islands, sinks U.S. submarines, and threatens to use nuclear weapons. Ryan counterattacks with high-tech weapons and sophisticated espionage, involving the participation of John Clark from Without Remorse. In the end, however, a Japanese kamikaze pilot crashes into the U.S. Capitol, killing nearly everyone in government except Ryan, who thus becomes the next U.S. president. Executive Orders begins where Debt of Honor leaves off, placing Ryan at the helm of a crippled government while the newly formed United Islamic Republic, a merger of Iran and Iraq, conquers Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and plans to invade Afghanistan and Pakistan with the support of India and China. While struggling to reconstruct the leadership of the United States and the world, Ryan also contends with a deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus and a scheming Montana militia group. Clark returns in Rainbow Six (1998), now resigned from the CIA and leading an elite group of international counterterrorists based in England. Immediately successful in quelling three terrorist attacks in quick succession, the group draws unwanted attention from Soviet, Australian, and American factions.

Critical Reception

Clancy is a preeminent innovator of the techno-thriller genre. The huge commercial success and consistently intriguing plots of his action-packed novels distinguish his work from that of other contemporary mainstream authors. While most critics find little literary merit in his work, few deny his remarkable talent as a storyteller and impressive knowledge of state-of-the-art military and communications technology. His detractors are quick to cite many flaws in the quality of his writing, particularly uninspired prose, stereotypical characters, and verbosity. Many critics also object to pervasive examples of jingoism, racism, misogyny, and uncritical acceptance of authority and Judeo-Christian morality in his novels. A staunch conservative, Clancy is hailed by many Republicans and right-leaning readers as a proponent of nationalism and a powerful American military spokesperson. Others view his glorification of advanced weaponry and American ascendancy as a backlash against anti-military sentiment following the Vietnam War and as propaganda for the military-industrial establishment. Despite such criticism concerning his literary skill and political ideals, Clancy has captivated legions of readers with his highly entertaining brand of escapist literature.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Hunt for Red October (novel) 1984
Red Storm Rising (novel) 1986
Patriot Games (novel) 1987
The Cardinal of the Kremlin (novel) 1988
Clear and Present Danger (novel) 1989
The Sum of All Fears (novel) 1991
Submarine (nonfiction) 1993
Without Remorse (novel) 1994
Debt of Honor (novel) 1994
Executive Orders (novel) 1996
Marine (nonfiction) 1996
Airborne (nonfiction) 1997
Armored Cav (nonfiction) 1997
Fighter Wing (nonfiction) 1997
Into the Storm (nonfiction) 1998
Rainbow Six (novel) 1998

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Walter Isaacson (review date 11 August 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Red Storm Rising," in Time, August 11, 1986, p. 64.

[In the following review, Isaacson offers a generally favorable assessment of Red Storm Rising.]

"What modern combat lacks in humanity, it more than makes up for in intensity," observes a reporter aboard an American frigate that has just repelled a Soviet missile attack. The same could be said of Tom Clancy's new military thriller, Red Storm Rising. In this version of blocs in conflict, the most compelling actors are the high-tech weapons that Clancy portrays with deadly accuracy.

The author, a Maryland insurance broker with a passion for military hardware, blipped onto the national...

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Anthony Hyde (review date 26 July 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Shadow of a Gunman," in Book World—The Washington Post, July 26, 1987, pp. 1-2.

[In the following review, Hyde praises the entertainment value of Patriot Games, though concludes that the novel is "well below Clancy's previous efforts."]

Tom Clancy's first two books were not so much novels as extended commentaries on war games—which I mean as a compliment, of course, not a complaint. In sitting down to play out Midway, I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have at my elbow, offering advice, except Admiral Spruance himself. But in both those early books, the deck was very much stacked in Clancy's favor. The map board was in place, the pieces...

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Ross Thomas (review date 2 August 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "White Knight, Green Villains," in New York Times Book Review, August 2, 1987, p. 11.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable review of Patriot Games.]

Just after Jack Ryan, a 31-year-old American tourist and former Marine officer, joins his doctor wife and 4-year-old daughter in a park on the very first day of his first visit to London, he hears an explosion. Or "BOOM!" as Tom Clancy puts it. Two heavily armed men are attacking a just disabled Rolls-Royce. Ryan automatically classifies them as Irish Republican Army terrorists and instinctively, or at least without mulling it over much, blindsides, disarms and cripples one of them and kills the...

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Robert Lekachman (review date 31 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Making the World Safe for Conventional War," in New York Times Book Review. July 31, 1988, p. 6.

[In the following review, Lekachman offers praise for The Cardinal of the Kremlin, which he considers "by far the best of the Jack Ryan series."]

Jack Ryan, the engaging, all-American hero of Tom Clancy's previous spy thrillers. The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, is entangled here in the high-stakes battle between America and the Soviet Union over the development of Star Wars. Mr. Clancy, a high-tech freak, permits no doubts about the feasibility of a space shield ultimately capable of rendering nuclear weapons obsolete. He is equally...

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Ross Thomas (review date 13 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Crackdown in Colombia," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 13, 1989, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Thomas offers a favorable assessment of Clear and Present Danger.]

In his search for a fictional clear and present danger that the nation might attack with its latest military hardware, Tom Clancy, novelist laureate of the military-industrial complex, has discovered the drug cartel that operates out of Medellin, Colombia, and that is getting enormously rich from America's apparently insatiable demand for cocaine.

And a rousing adventure it is, too, what with a fake military hanging aboard a Coast Guard cutter, plus several squads...

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David Wise (review date 13 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Just Say Nuke 'Em," in New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, p. 9.

[In the following review, Wise offers a tempered assessment of Clear and Present Danger, which he describes as "a ponderous thriller."]

"It was odd, Cutter thought, how ideas grow. First the President had made an intemperate remark after learning that the cousin of a close friend had died of a drug overdose."

Next thing you know, Vice Adm. James Cutter, the President's national security adviser (and a certified baddie in Tom Clancy's new techno-thriller, Clear and Present Danger), has a chat with the C.I.A.'s senior spook. Before you can say Jack...

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Elliott Abrams (review date 16 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Operation Showboat: A Real War on Drugs," in The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 1989, p. A10.

[In the following review, Abrams offers a favorable assessment of Clear and Present Danger.]

Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger begins with a president sitting in his high-backed, bullet-resistant chair in the Oval Office, grumbling to his national security adviser. "I promised the American people that we'd do something about this problem and we haven't accomplished …," he says, crossly buttering a croissant.

Mr. Clancy's new thriller revolves around the question: What do we do about drugs, when all the speeches are over? For Mr....

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Morton Kondracke (review date 28 July 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Missile for Every Occasion," in New York Times Book Review, July 28, 1991, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review, Kondracke offers a favorable assessment of The Sum of All Fears. According to Kondracke, "In its plotting, vividness and suspense, this is Mr. Clancy's best book since The Hunt for Red October."]

One of Tom Clancy's many gifts as a writer of thrillers is that he constantly taps the current world situation for its imminent dangers and spins them into an engrossing tale. In 1984 and 1986, before United States-Soviet relations had begun to thaw, Mr. Clancy wrote The Hunt for Red October, in which the defection of a Soviet submarine...

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Bob Shacochis (review date 4 August 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Sum of All Fears, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 4, 1991, pp. 3, 8.

[In the following review, Shacochis offers praise for The Sum of All Fears.]

OK, all of you despondent Desert Storm junkies, cheer up—the adventure continues (for a whopping 800 pages; none of this Wham, Bam, Thank You, Saddam stuff). The Sum of All Fears is the perfect panacea for anyone experiencing withdrawal symptoms from the Gulf War, unwilling to trust the White House to co-produce the sequel.

Whoever spends the bucks on Tom Clancy's sixth novel should be able to figure out how decent people become drug addicts, since...

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Louis Menand (review date 16 September 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Very Popular Mechanics," in The New Yorker, September 16. 1991, pp. 91-2, 94-5.

[In the following review, Menand provides analysis of The Sum of All Fears and Clancy's popularity.]

I counted fifty-six references to coffee in Tom Clancy's new thriller, The Sum of All Fears. It's a long book, nearly eight hundred pages; still, that's a lot of coffee. Clancy's people need the caffeine, though, because freedom needs their vigilance. They are the intelligence analysts, fighter pilots, submariners, air-defense monitors, radar and sonar operators, secret-service agents, and other military, paramilitary, and civilian personnel on whose alertness the...

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William F. Ryan (essay date Winter 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Genesis of the Techno-Thriller," in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 24-40.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan explores the origins and defining characteristics of the techno-thriller genre as popularized by Clancy's best-selling novels. Though Clancy is widely regarded as "the wizard inventor of the techno-thriller." Ryan cites literary precedents in the work of Jules Verne.]

When Thomas Leo Clancy was a boy in Baltimore, he wanted to be a soldier. His heart beat for the stars and stripes. On good days he could catch the scent of sea spray from Chesapeake Bay. In his student years at Loyola College he carried no signs and...

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G. Gordon Liddy (review date 22 August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Smell of Napalm in the Morning," in New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1993, pp. 13-14.

[In the following review, Liddy offers tempered criticism of Without Remorse, though concedes that "of the millions bound to read it, few will not enjoy it thoroughly."]

It may seem a bit early, but why not revisit the cold war? After all, successful authors have been dining out on World War II for half a century and, if memory serves, they didn't wait long to start. The trick is to use the hottest part, Vietnam, and throw in a parallel story of revenge in the dirty world of drugs and prostitution that metastasized in our cities' streets as our involvement in...

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Walter L. Hixson (essay date Fall 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Red Storm Rising: Tom Clancy Novels and the Cult of National Security," in Diplomatic History, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1993, pp. 599-613.

[In the following essay, Hixson examines the cultural significance of American jingoism and the glorification of advanced weaponry in The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, and The Cardinal of the Kremlin. According to Hixson, Clancy's novels "can be interpreted as popular representations of Reagan-era Cold War values."]

They're not just novels. They're read as the real thing.

—Former Vice President Dan Quayle on Tom Clancy's novels


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John Calvin Batchelor (review date 21 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tom Clancy's Damn-the-Literary-Torpedoes Style Dances at the Edge of the Daily News," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 21, 1994, pp. 1, 9.

[In the following review, Batchelor offers praise for Debt of Honor.]

Tom Clancy is America's most wish-fulfilling policy-maker, and in his eighth spectacular and scary novel, Debt of Honor, he plunges America into a foreign policy that is at once unthinkable and very thrilling—a campaign that the present State and Defense departments can only wish they had the talent to fight.

Real war with Japan. Real Japanese sneak attack against America's Pacific fleet, real paralyzing nuclear...

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John Lehman (review date 2 September 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Jack Ryan's New Gizmos Save Another Day," in The Wall Street Journal, September 2, 1994, p. A7.

[In the following review, Lehman offers a favorable assessment of Debt of Honor.]

After The Hunt for Red October established Tom Clancy as the Pentagon's Boswell, he found himself accorded the honors and access of a field marshall. A former Marine and lifelong military buff, Mr. Clancy used this access to soak up even more of the technical detail and the cultural attitudes of the politico-military world. Thusly armed, he produced a new class of literature—techno-thriller.

So what if his prose reads like a government manual. What, I often...

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Christopher Buckley (review date 2 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Megabashing Japan," in New York Times Book Review, October 2, 1994, pp. 28-9.

[Below, Buckley offers an unfavorable review of Debt of Honor.]

Somewhere, if memory serves, Mark Twain said of one of Henry James's books, "Once you put it down, you can't pick it up." Debt of Honor, the eighth novel in Tom Clancy's oeuvre, is, at 766 pages, a herniating experience. Things don't really start to happen until about halfway through this book, by which time most authors, including even some turgid Russian novelists, are finished with theirs. But Tom Clancy must be understood in a broader context, not as a mere writer of gizmo-thrillers, destroyer of...

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Michael R. Beschloss (review date 18 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "President Jack Ryan," in Book World—The Washington Post, August 18, 1996, pp. 1, 14.

[In the following review, Beschloss offers a favorable assessment of Executive Orders.]

As Executive Orders opens, Tom Clancy's hero, Jack Ryan, has just been confirmed as vice president after his predecessor, Edward Kealty, is caught in a sex scandal. After an abortive war between the United States and Japan, terrorists fly a Japan Airlines 747 into the Capitol, killing the president, hundreds of representatives and senators, the joint chiefs of staff, most of the cabinet and all nine justices of the Supreme Court. Ryan cries, "You're telling me I'm the whole...

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Paul Dean (review date 25 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Harrison Ford, Call Your Agent," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 25, 1996, p. 5.

[In the following review, Dean offers tempered praise for Executive Orders.]

In this, his longest and lumpiest collage of fundamental values and techno-babble, Tom Clancy resolves our Clinton-Dole-Perot-Nader uncertainties by suggesting the least of five evils: Jack Ryan for president.

Ryan—the indestructible, tighter-zippered superhero tied to Clancy and the CIA as closely as martini-weenie James Bond was to Ian Fleming and M15—certainly speaks what the electorate knows in its heart is right. "Please, do not send me politicians. I need people who do...

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Christopher Hitchens (review date 14 November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Something for the Boys," in New York Review of Books, November 14, 1996, pp. 34-6.

[In the following review, Hitchens provides critical analysis of Debt of Honor and Marine.]

The dedication page of this Behemoth carries a lapidary, capitalized inscription, "To Ronald Wilson Reagan, Fortieth President of the United States: The Man Who Won The War." And this is only fair. In 1984, the Naval Institute Press paid Tom Clancy an advance of $5,000 for The Hunt for Red October. It was the first fiction that the Naval Institute had knowingly or admittedly published. There matters might have rested, except that someone handed a copy to the Fortieth...

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Helen S. Garson (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In the Popular Tradition," in Tom Clancy: A Critical Companion, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 25-39.

[In the following essay, Garson examines the combined elements of the conventional thriller, science fiction, detective fiction, and the techno-thriller in Clancy's novels.]

For a long time Tom Clancy insisted he writes political thrillers, totally rejecting the term "technothriller" that numerous critics have bestowed on his work. But perhaps in recognition of the inevitable, he has finally given in. When Larry King on his 22 August 1994 television show introduced him as a writer of technothrillers, Clancy made no protest. As for labeling his work, a case could...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Flick, Arend. "Traitors and Heroes." Los Angeles Times Book Review (26 July 1987): 1, 10.

Offers tempered evaluation of Patriot Games.

Gibson, J. William. "Redeeming Vietnam: Techno-Thriller Novels of the 1980s." Cultural Critique 19 (Fall 1991): 179-202.

Explores the sociocultural context and function of the techno-thriller, including Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising.

Lernoux, Penny. "Just Say Colombia." Los Angeles Times Book Review (10 September 1989): 4.


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