Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Book Review: Clancy's "The Teeth of the Tiger"

El Jefe has just blown through Tom Clancy's The Teeth of the Tiger (Putnam, 2003). I usually read a couple of books at once, and Tiger was easy sledding, consuming a couple of evenings after work and getting the Heir in bed.
Tiger is set in Mr. Clancy's Jack Ryan universe, the realm of all save one of his novels. Tiger is a fast read, but not the best of the series, and no doubt one reason for the book's difficulties is Mr. Clancy's decision to persevere with the Ryanverse. The first of the Jack Ryan novels, Hunt For Red October, was published in 1984, and since CIA Agent Jack Ryan put the kibosh on deployment of the Soviet Union's newest submarine, a lot has happened: Russia under new management; end of the Cold War; German reunification; two Gulf Wars; 9/11; the fracturing of're getting the picture.
If that wasn't bad enough, the author has to contend with all the upsetment Ryan and his cohorts unleashed in the Clancy parallel universe -- wars with Japan and Iran; the nuking of Denver; the Capital Building getting leveled; China invading Russia; environmental wackos trying to destroy the world; CIA Agent Ryan winding up as me brain-strain just listing this stuff. Future Ryanverse novels have to balance all these sets of books, and even with a certain amount of license, Mr. Clancy's credulity account is fast approaching overdrawn. The weird part is that this all could have been avoided, and Tiger made freestanding, because few of the old characters even make a cameo appearance. Longtime Clancy fans will miss John Clark and Ding Chavez.
Tiger is Mr. Clancy's answer to 9/11. Some very Al Qaeda-like baddies have concocted a sequel atrocity -- and, as El Jefe's dinner party friends could tell readers, they are copying from the El Jefe playbook. Jack Ryan is in retirement, and a Teddy Kennedy clone is President; and the CIA is (typically) clueless. Into the breach steps Mr. Clancy's brainchild, an off-the-shelf, privatized intelligence agency masquerading as an investment bank, using government intelligence to fund itself via insider-trading like financial maneuvers, to cover its anti-bad guy covert agenda. The organization is run by a retired John McCain-like Senator.
Mr. Clancy's organizational idea is the most intriguing part of the book, and Tiger would have been better with more space devoted to fleshing-out the implications of his institutional premise. The private intelligence organization in Tiger exists because traditional intelligence organizations are too hamstrung by legal requirements; too open to press scrutiny to do what is necessary, which is to conduct the struggle with Al Qaeda like it's a war -- by simply hunting down organization members, sympathisers, financiers and recruiters -- and killing them. No due process, no trial, just bump 'em off and put up the tombstone. Mr. Clancy proposes to beat Al Qaeda with its own rules.
Mr. Clancy may well be right that this is the way to go, (El Jefe tends to agree with him here), but Tiger's organization engages in some truly jaw-dropping activities. The covert intelligence organization is carrying on its struggle without the knowledge of the sitting President, with only the benefit of nods and winks by the military and intelligence bureaucracies who feed the covert gang with information and recruits without the knowledge of their legal Commander in Chief. The private little war is legally covered by Mr. Clancy's truly innovative use of the Presidential pardon power -- turning pardons into a 21st Century version of the French monarchy's lettres de cachet.
In any case, the bad guys carry out their awful plot, and the off-the-shelf spies are put on the case: brothers Aldo and Enzo (Italian-American, of course) respectively a Marine and an FBI agent; and the organization's rookie analyst, who just happens to be President Jack Ryan's son, Jack Jr., cousin of Aldo and Enzo. The brothers have their qualms of conscience, but get over them fast when they have a shoot 'em up with a bad guy death squad. Aldo and Enzo then have a merry time chasing around Europe after Bad Guys -- wacking them between stays in four star hotels; drives down the autobahns in Porsche 911's; putting Vitello Milanese on American Express black cards; with an occasional ruined suit to be cleaned by the understanding hotel valets. Wahoo ! Secret Agent Man saving the universe on good champagne ! Where can I sign up for this job ?
Jack Jr., fresh out of college, proves he's got Dad's brains by ID'ing the big bosses, and shows he's got Dad's stones when he joins the hitters as a substitute wacker. The President's kid on covert ops -- and right out of the box he does a job as a hitter ? Yeah, that's gonna work. A scotch or five on the plane home obviates any qualms of conscience.
No girls in this book, save for expensive hookers who all seem to be on the police payroll; a brief mention of a terrorist's unwitting girlfriend who appears to be totally unaware her sweet little Abdul ain't the Fuller Brush Man; and reference to Jack Jr.'s Mom, who scares off dates. This doesn't work: these are young men, and all espionage and no play makes Jack Jr. a dull superspy. A gun moll or two might have livened things up a bit.
A fun book. Clever bad guy plans. Evil bad guys you can really hate. Gun talk on, say, the merits of the Smith and Wesson 10 mm versus the Beretta 9mm. Bad guys getting theirs, leaving a nice, righteous feeling. An interesting organizational premise that Mr. Clancy should have elaborated on. The sequel's clearly set up, and I'm good for it when it comes out (later this year). Still, the Clancy books are beginning to stretch it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This book reminded me an awful lot of one of his earlier books, when he introduced Clark, think it was "Without Remorse."