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KEENE: Bringing to life the Navy novel

Tom Clancy created the adventures he longed to live

If Tom Clancy didn't create the genre of action-infused military novels that readers couldn't put down, he certainly perfected it. By the time he passed away on Tuesday at age 66, he had written a shelf-full of some of the most widely read all-American, cloak-and-.45 tales ever. Tens of millions of fans worldwide are left wanting — if not grieving.

Mr. Clancy was born in Baltimore in 1947, and after graduating from college worked as an insurance salesman for a family-owned Annapolis area agency until his life changed forever in 1985 with sudden fame and fortune.

As a youngster, Mr. Clancy was obsessed with naval and military history and especially naval history. He read everything he could get his hands on and lusted after a military career. His eyesight was bad, however, and he was rejected by the U.S. Navy, but his love for all things military remained with him.

Eventually, Mr. Clancy decided to try his hand as a writer and sent the manuscript of his first novel to the Navy Institute Press. It made sense to him because the book he had penned was a naval adventure, they were nearby and specialized in books on naval affairs, but what he didn't realize was that they had never published a novel and weren't initially prepared to pay much attention to a work of fiction from someone who'd never published anything — even if he was local.

The assistant editor who read the manuscript, however, insisted that it was worth reading and publishing, so Mr. Clancy was given an advance of $5,000 for the novel, which was published in 1985 as "The Hunt for Red October." Reviewers and readers loved it, but it wasn't until President Reagan was spotted with a copy of it under his arm and told an inquisitive reporter that it was a "perfect yarn" and he just couldn't put down that sales caught fire.

That was all it took. Within a year or so, his $5,000 advance was followed by more than $1 million in royalties, and the former insurance salesman was on his way. Prior to his death, he had published more than two dozen novels, bought a share of the Baltimore Orioles, owned a video-game company and sold something like 100 million books. Seventeen of them made it to No. 1 on The New York Times' best-seller list and many were made into blockbuster movies.

From the beginning, Mr. Clancy prided himself on technical realism, and more than a few suspected that he had access to classified information that had no business appearing in a novel. Intelligence agencies were dubious of his claims of innocence, however, so he had to be very careful to document his sources. In the early years, he kept this documentation in a spare bedroom at his home in case questions arose about where he was getting the information that appeared in his novels.

He called me in the midst of writing his second novel, "Red Storm Rising," because U.S. intelligence agents had appeared at his door, claiming that one chapter of the novel contained highly classified information about an event that had taken place and which he had no right to even know about. They were, Mr. Clancy told me, quite upset, but wouldn't tell him any more than that. So he swore he didn't even know what he was being accused of leaking.

At the time, I was working with one of the firms tasked with making Mr. Reagan's missile-defense dream a reality, and Mr. Clancy wanted to know if I knew someone with the sort of clearances and knowledge that might allow him to recognize if he had, in fact, crossed a line. I did, and my friend made his way to Mr. Clancy's house, where he read the chapter and told the author that while he couldn't tell him what the problem was with what he'd written, it was real and it was serious.

Mr. Clancy eventually documented the fact that he had extrapolated from a short item in The Washington Post to make up a fictional incident that furthered his plot. The problem was that what he made up was exactly what had happened. Nonetheless, since he had not had access to classified material, it stayed in the novel.

Tom Clancy's success stemmed from his ability to write fiction that reads like fact, drawing devoted readers to his novels. The success of "The Hunt for Red October" made him a star and a celebrity while making it possible for him to live out what must have once seemed an unattainable dream.

He was loved by many in the military because in his books and in his personal view, those who served his country were true heroes. He was a Republican, though Reagan wouldn't have known that when he praised that first novel by an obscure author. He was also a conservative, who served for several years on the board of the American Conservative Union and — oh, yes, he was a life member of the National Rifle Association.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.

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