Let me take you back to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when The Washington Post Book World was a stand-alone section that ran a regular feature called Book Report and a man named Tom Clancy was a Calvert County insurance agent preparing to publish his first book.
In June 1984, Michele Slung, The Post’s books reporter, wrote about a double unlikelihood: the decision by the little-known Naval Institute Press in Annapolis to branch out from nonfiction books on nautical matters and to start publishing fiction, and the luck of a budding novelist in selling his first book to the first house he sent it to.
A photo of Clancy, who died Wednesday at age 66, tops Slung’s report — the leftmost anchor of a trio that also includes Richard Nixon and Michael Jackson (together at last). She noted that the Naval Institute dates back to 1873, when it was founded, in part, to let naval officers kibitz about how their favorite branch of the service was being run. A hundred and eleven years later, one of its editors described it as “a nonprofit membership organization that publishes magazines and books.”
It wasn’t an organization that commanded much national attention, but its small press was about to dive into fiction because, as Slung put it, “they knew they had their book.”
Fred Rainbow, who was an editor of the Naval Institute’s magazine at the time, remembers, however, that they didn’t know what they had in Tom Clancy right away. Clancy’s first contact with the Naval Institute had been unpromising. He had written a letter to the editor, which he wanted to deliver in person. When Rainbow found out Clancy’s occupation, he said to him over the phone, “I know why you want to come here in person. You want to sell me insurance.”
I was a Book World editor then (and now), and I remember being skeptical about this upstart press and its author from nowhere. But I was won over by my late colleague Reid Beddow. When “The Hunt for Red October,” Clancy’s thriller about a Russian submarine and its rogue commander, came out — in October, naturally — Beddow wrote our review, calling it “a tremendously enjoyable and gripping novel of naval derring-do.”
I can’t swear that Beddow was the first to rave about “Red October,” but his review was among the early rivulets in what swelled into a flood of praise. In any case, three weeks later “Red October” surfaced on a Post fiction bestseller list that also included thrillers by Stephen King and Peter Straub (as co-authors) and Mary Higgins Clark, as well as the higher-brow novels “God Knows,” by Joseph Heller, and “Lincoln,” by Gore Vidal.
An even bigger boost was provided by President Ronald Reagan, who, when Time magazine asked him about his favorite recent book, voted for “Red October.”
The book went on to top bestseller lists, become a movie starring Sean Connery and play into the hands of Major League Baseball, which likes to describe the last few weeks of the regular season as “the hunt for October.” Its author and his fictional hero, Jack Ryan, became an influential franchise.
So influential, in fact, that the mystery field acquired a new subgenre: the techno-thriller. Slung’s report describes fact-checkers at Naval Institute Press poring over the manuscript for eight months — as well they should have, since, Slung said, Clancy “hadn’t ever been on a sub in his life” when he wrote the manuscript. How successful he was at conjuring up a milieu of which his knowledge was only secondhand can be gleaned from Beddow’s review:
“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.” Beddow himself was a Navy man, so he had the jump on Clancy there. But Clancy, of course, was the one who got rich, thanks to “Red October” and a string of other novels that, according to his Web site, added up to 17 number-one bestsellers.
In 1984, Clancy told The Post that he was proud that all his facts and technical knowledge checked out — and that he knew he was lucky to have his first novel chosen by the Naval Institute Press.
“I did everything wrong the right way,” he said.