On the Bookshelf: Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
I was unsure if I really wanted to write a review of this doorstop of a novel (950 pages that with smaller type and narrower margins could have saved a couple of hundred pages). I would assume that with an author like Tom Clancy on the cover there will be plenty of reviews out there anyway and, like it or hate it, the novel is likely to sell about a bazillion copies on that alone. So, like it or hate it? Well, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like it either, at least not as much as previous novels written by Clancy, assuming Clancy did the writing. I’m not sure about bringing Grant Blackwood on board. I guess Mr. Clancy is very busy with his multi-media empire, and I can understand franchising his name for “Tom Clancy’s” spinoffs, but the Jack Ryan novels are his bread-and-butter. Those characters and his writing are why I read them. Admittedly, Blackwood’s writing is a far cry from fan fiction as he is a published author in his own right, and I’m sure Clancy had the opportunity for plenty of input, but in the seven or so years between novels couldn’t Clancy manage to sit down long enough to write the book on his own?
Anyway, the plot. The private spy agency (and yes, it is a private spy agency that specializes in “wet-work” with no congressional oversight) known as The Campus is out to get The Emir. The Emir is the Clancyverse analog to Osama bin Laden and leader of the terrorist network that essentially combines al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Clancy apparently didn’t think it was plausible for Jack Ryan Jr. and his cousins to track down the world’s most wanted terrorist on their own, so he recruited John Clark and his trusty sidekick Ding Chavez to The Campus to help. There is also some stuff about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Jack Ryan Sr. deciding if he wants to run for president again and a murder investigation into a U.S. Army Ranger who killed several terrorists in their sleep during a special-ops mission to try to catch The Emir.
Ok, enough about the plot, if you really want to know how it goes down you’ll read the book.
An editorial digression:
Not to put too much significance into a novel (though it is ideas in things like novels that have an effect on popular attitudes) I would like to make a few points about the series and where it is headed, which is, I think, in something of a dangerous direction. Much is made in military theory circles about the loss of the State’s monopoly on violence. Interstate terrorism is a prime example of this. What Clancy is essentially doing in Dead or Alive, is creating an organization in The Campus, that is exactly the same as the terrorists it is hunting and I think this is a problem. It is believed that terrorist activity is financed, at least in part, by money that comes from the drug trade in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Campus, which wears the public face of an investment brokerage house, unapologetically finances itself through illegal insider trading. Terrorists believe that their causes allow them to justify torture and to murder those who do not believe as they do in order to make a point. Look at any beheading video for an example of this activity. The Campus also feels justified in torture and murder in order to fight their personal fight. They are doing it for all the right reasons in their mind, but their actions are just as subversive to the foundations of law and justice as those of the terrorists. It makes me feel no better that The Campus has a stack of blank presidential pardons for anyone at The Campus caught breaking the laws of the United States signed by Jack Ryan. To me, that perverts the law even more blatantly.
The sub-plot about the Army Ranger being investigated for murder serves to underscore this disconnect. It is as if Clancy is further justifying and advocating the vigilantism of The Campus because politicians won’t get out of the way of the trigger-pullers and let them beat the terrorists.