Mr. Clancy bolted from obscurity to international attention in the 1980s as the defining military writer of the Cold War. Through his pop fiction, he later became a key chronicler of the counterterrorism age.
His brick-size books sold tens of millions of copies and spawned the tactical-shooter genre of video games that in recent years has come to dominate the billion-dollar industry. Several volumes, including his debut novel “The Hunt for Red October” (1984), “Patriot Games” (1987) and “Clear and Present Danger” (1989), inspired movies featuring Hollywood stars such as Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford.
Critics dismissed Mr. Clancy’s works as fare to be bought at the supermarket and consumed in airport terminals and on beaches. They faulted him for what they regarded as his failure to present human beings with as much nuance as he depicted submarines and tanks.
Beyond the pulpy covers of his paperbacks lay staggeringly accurate descriptions of military weaponry and strategy. John F. Lehman Jr., who served as secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, read “The Hunt for Red October” shortly after its publication and later spoke to the author.
“The first thing he asked me about the book,” Mr. Clancy told the New York Times, “was ‘Who the hell cleared it?’ ”
Mr. Clancy joined the ROTC during college but was precluded from service in the Vietnam War because of his pronounced nearsightedness, an impairment betrayed by his recognizable dark-tinted Coke-bottle glasses. He settled on a career in insurance sales but never abandoned his interest in the military — or his childhood hope of becoming a writer.
By the early 1980s, he had finished in his spare time the manuscript for “The Hunt for Red October,” an account of the defection of a Soviet submarine captain and the ensuing confrontation with the United States in the North Atlantic. The Naval Institute Press in Annapolis took a risk on the manuscript — and on Mr. Clancy, its first author of original fiction — and bought it for $5,000.
At first, the book was circulated among government leaders in Washington, who the publishing house hoped would enjoy its combination of accuracy and intrigue. The volume made its way to President Ronald Reagan, who was quoted as saying that he could not put the book down. That endorsement helped propel “Red October” to the top of the sales charts.
For nearly three decades that followed, Mr. Clancy fired off one thriller after another. His second volume, “Red Storm Rising” (1986), a hyper-technical account of an oil crisis that precipitates a third world war in Europe, became required reading at the Naval War College.