Book review: Tom Clancy’s ‘Dead or Alive’

Los Angeles Times

OK, so apart from those genuinely saintly souls sent by Providence as examples to the rest of us, is there anyone with a pulse in this country who wouldn’t like to see Osama bin Laden dead? Should he yet fall into our hands, even this writer — an implacable opponent of capital punishment — sees no reason to take the evil SOB alive.

That’s the animating fantasy at the heart of Tom Clancy’s sprawling but propulsive new thriller, “Dead or Alive,” his 15th novel since he exploded like a cluster bomb onto bestseller lists with “The Hunt for Red October” in 1984. In recent years, his equally sprawling $100-million book, film and game empire has come to rely increasingly on “collaborators,” one of whom — Grant Blackwood, a veteran of Clive Cussler’s similar operation — is credited here. Still, this latest book, like the most interesting of Clancy’s work, has a tendency to both pander to popular fantasy (in this case, revenge) and, simultaneously, to play against it with hard-headed insights into the real world of military and intelligence operations. It’s a fruitful tension that lends his books a quirky, appealing unpredictability that sometimes can survive even the author’s eye-rolling politics.

Clancy fans may regard “Dead or Alive” as rather like one of those NBA “dream teams” they throw together for the Olympics; win, lose or draw — it’s fun to see them all on the court. This time, the best characters from all Clancy’s previous novels are on the case, including Jack Ryan and his son, Jack Ryan Jr.; the deadly John Clark (Jack senior’s darker half); the Caruso brothers, Dominic and Brian; the ace intelligence analyst Mary Pat Foley; and even Clark’s protégé, Ding Chavez. Their quarry is the “Emir,” a Bin Laden-like terrorist in hiding after a series of horrific attacks on the United States by his Al Qaeda-like network.


The elder Ryan, a onetime naval intelligence and CIA analyst, now is the recently retired president — don’t ask about the series of catastrophic improbabilities that thrust him into that job — and the rest of the cast works for a super-secret black operations agency, the Campus, that he created. It’s a self-funding (translation: no congressional or executive oversight) group with a secret charter to hunt down and kill anyone it deems a terrorist or terrorist collaborator. It operates completely on its own and its personnel were provided by then-President Ryan with blank advance pardons to ward off prosecutions. Essentially, the Campus and its crew are what British intelligence used to plainly call “a murder gang.” It’s a kind of crypto-fascist wet dream run by preternaturally wise heroes and without legal restraints or personal compunction.

It hardly matters, because they always know who the bad guys are and just when and where to shoot. In this instance, a series of electronic intercepts and incremental intelligence coups revive the hunt for the Emir ongoing since 9/11. It’s clear he’s plotting some devastating new operation, but just how broad its scope and how nefarious its hall-of-mirrors implications are unfolds clearly only at the end of the break-neck narrative. It’s not giving too much away to say that one of the conceits with which the plot is playing is how things might proceed, if the Emir/Bin Laden were not hiding in Pakistan’s tribal hinterlands but somewhere ingeniously in plain sight. His actual location seems at first almost satirically preposterous and, then, marvelously appropriate — a characteristic of Clancy’s better plot devices.

The author always has had a knack for situating his successful thrillers in territory that’s not simply physically topical, but politically — or, at least, emotionally — contested. Thus, “Dead or Alive” is infused with not only the strategic and tactical settings of the “war on terror,” but also a healthy dose of “tea party” politics, including distaste for elite institutions and opinions. The president who has succeeded Ryan is a wimpy, mean-spirited aristocratic lefty with nothing better to do than unwind Jack’s successful tax policies and mindlessly assert civilian control over the military. His whiningly ineffectual, equally small-minded advisors are introduced with the names of their Ivy League alma maters — this one from Harvard, this one from Yale. Seldom has a good education been presented as such a morally, intellectually crippling handicap.

On the other hand, Clancy’s deep research into contemporary military and intelligence practices often spins his stories in unexpectedly realistic directions. When one of the redoubtable Mary Pat Foley’s colleagues makes an offhand remark about the efficacy of waterboarding, for example, it sets off an internal reverie — there are lots of such digressions in this novel’s nearly 1,000 pages — on how torture is “of little use in the real world” because it doesn’t “produce reliable and verifiable information. More often than not, it was a waste of time.… The ‘ticking bomb’ scenario so casually batted about was …was beyond rare, a Hollywood concoction.” On the other hand, none of that keeps Mary Pat’s comrades from treating a particular “high-value asset” whom they capture with ingenious sadism.

Going back to his first published novel, Clancy’s bread and butter has been the details of military technologies and hardware — it’s one of the things that has given him a devoted following among serving members of the armed forces — and there’s plenty of that in “Dead or Alive.” If one of Clancy’s operatives has a handgun, it’s described right down to the make and laser sight, whose various options also are exhaustively explored.

For fans of the genre, “Dead or Alive” is likely to provide a long weekend’s pleasure — something, perhaps, for the person in your life still sufficiently in touch with his mayhem-inclined inner child to enjoy watching the Military Channel.