Underneath the freezing seas of the North Atlantic, a giant Soviet submarine, the 30,000-ton Red October, many times larger than any American sub, glides through the deep. Armed with 26 solid- fuel missiles (each with eight 500-kiloton nuclear warheads) she is headed for the East Coast of the United States. In hot pursuit are 30 surface ships and 58 other submarines — the entire Soviet Northern Fleet.

So begins Tom Clancy’s breathlessly exciting submarine novel, “The Hunt for Red October.” It may be the most satisfactory novel of a sea chase since C.S. Forester perfected the form.

Its startling premise is that the Red October’s skipper, Captain First Rank Marko Ramius, wants to defect to the West, taking his ship with him. That is why the Russians are chasing one of their own. Thanks to a spy, the U.S. Navy knows Ramius’ intent. At the Pentagon they salivate at the chance to dismantle an intact Russian submarine of the latest design. But neither Ramius nor the Russians know our side knows. So the U.S. Navy must deploy to meet the Soviet fleet’s appearance in force, while at the same time it attempts to track down the Red October, establish communication with Ramius, and escort his ship to a concealed anchorage.

The scene of the action shifts rapidly, from Moscow to Washington, from Murmansk to Norfolk, from ship to ship, and back again, the tension constantly building with gratifying unpredictability.

"The Hunt for Red October" starring, from left, Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin and Scott Glenn. The film is based on the book by Tom Clancy. (Anonymous/AP)

For a landsman, Clancy marvelously evokes the cramped quarters and high morale of submarine duty. Many of his good guys are aboard the U.S.S. Dallas, an attack submarine on “Toll Booth” station, near the treacherous undersea trough off Iceland where Russian subs habitually disgorge into the Atlantic. Here Sonarman Second Class Ronald Jones stands sentinel over his listening equipment. (Off duty Jones plays tapes of Bach: this is the new Navy.) The Dallas carries a chain of passive sensors which extend 200 feet down both sides of her hull, “a mechanical analog to the sensory organs on the body of a shark.” From them, Jones picks up a strange sound, a “sort of swish.” It is the Red October hurtling into harm’s way.

Who will catch the quarry first, the Russians or the Americans? The double hunt climaxes in a series of lethal encounters as the NATO and Soviet navies converge and the world teeters on the edge of Doomsday. An attractive cast of strong characters — CIA spooks, political commissars, old sea dogs and young sailors — lends credence to the elegant plot.

Clancy’s strong suit is his facile handling of the gadgetry of modern weapons systems. Readers who don’t know the difference between Tomahawk or Harpoon missiles will lap up his depiction of a hide-and-seek world, one where killer submarines shadow missile-firing submarines above an ocean floor alive with electronic sensors flashing data to ultra-high- speed computers.

Clancy’s revels in the high technology of the arms race never bore. His chilling description of what happens when a nuclear reactor melts down, condemning a submarine crew to not quite instant and horrible death, will cause armchair admirals to shudder. The metallurgical properties of submarine hulls, ultra-low-frequency radio — all is grist for the author’s mill. Here he discusses propeller cavitation:

“When you have a propeller turning in the water at high speed, you develop an area of low pressure behind the trailing edge of the blade. This can cause water to vaporize. This creates a bunch of little bubbles. They can’t last long under the water pressure, and when they collapse the water rushes forward to pound against the blades. That does three things. First it makes noise, and us sub drivers hate noise. Second, it can cause vibration, something else we don’t like. The old passenger liners, for example, used to flutter several inches at the stern. . . . Third, it tears up the screws . . . “

This is engaging stuff, and just as we used to rejoice in C.S. Forester’s technical descriptions of 200 tars scaling the rigging of a man-of-war to shorten sail, so we warm to Clancy’s deft handling of modern naval armament. Red October makes the pigboat of the motion picture “Das Boot” look like a Model T.

No doubt some persons will deplore Clancy’s enthusiasm for the superpowers’ game of high-tech chicken in Davy Jones’ locker. All that is another argument: “The Hunt for Red October” is a tremendously enjoyable and gripping novel of naval derring-do. Evidently submariners mean it when they say, “There are only two kinds of ships — submarines and targets.”