Putnam, 2002, 618 pages, C$39.99 hc, ISBN 0-399-14870-1
It’s no accident if Tom Clancy has decided to incorporate under the name “Jack Ryan Ltd.” His fictional protagonist has starred in no less than eight best-selling novels since 1984 (with cameo roles in two others) as well as four blockbuster films. This is nothing compared to some mystery writers who are still churning out series novels decades after inventing their lead protagonist (Robert B. Parker and his “Spencer”, for instance), but unlike them, Clancy has been willing to make his characters evolve. From a humble intelligence analyst in The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan has become, post-Debt of Honor, nothing less than the President of the United States. After dealing with what was almost a nuclear war in The Bear and the Dragon, there isn’t much left for Ryan to do: Step down —or die heroically.
While that particular story might be told in Clancy’s next opus, [September 2003: Alas, no] that hasn’t prevented him from squeezing out one more Ryan adventure out of his imagined universe. With Red Rabbit, he takes us back sometime between Patriot Games and The Hunt for Red October to tell us of his involvement in countering an assassination attempt on the Pope.
Now this attempt is part of the historical record; in May 1981, Pope John Paul II was severely wounded by a Turkish terrorist named Mehmet Ali Agca, who was using a weapon obtained in Bulgaria. Since then, various rumours have credited the KGB with this attempt. Red Rabbit is a peek behind the Iron Curtain, a fictionalization of the events surrounding this event.
It’s an unusual novel for Clancy; an attempt at meshing historical fact and fiction (he has written “historical” novel before –Without Remorse-, but it didn’t attempt to integrate itself with any known historical fact), a simpler plot than the previous novels (notice how the book is “merely” six hundred-odd pages long) and a curiously non-violent book too: The only shots fired are part of the historical record, and the body count equals exactly one —and that takes place off-screen at the very very end of the book.
It’s also unusual in that it’s Clancy’s purest “spy” story so far. Whereas The Cardinal of the Kremlin contained a substantial touch of spycraft, this novel is packed with what feels like authentic descriptions of real-life spy stuff. Even the low thrill-factor of Red Rabbit works at evoking real-world danger here; By toning down the spectacular, Clancy makes even a simple playground conversation seem tense. Surely real spies do not behave like James Bond!
Instead, we’re treated to a historical drama made more prescient with the benefit of twenty year’s hindsight and declassified material. The role of the papacy in the fall of communism is now fairly well-documented, and Clancy can draw upon these new revelations to solidify his story.
On the other hand, he can’t resist the temptation to give his protagonists almost perfect foresight. Jack Ryan is almost cocky when he confidently asserts that the Soviet Empire will soon crumble upon itself. Other more serious anachronisms abound, mixing dates between 1980 and 1982. As a teenage Transformers fan, I was rather shocked to catch Clancy referencing the cartoon series at least three years before it was aired. Gotcha, Tom!
This laziness doesn’t stop there: on a sentence-per-sentence level, Red Rabbit is as sloppily edited as Clancy’s latest few novels. Anachronistic expressions abound, and so does a certain repetition of terms (most egregiously the infamous “pshrink”), though nowhere as bad as in The Bear and the Dragon. I have noted previously that Clancy needs an editor who will not be swayed by his best-selling status, and this is still true; you could lop at least one hundred pages off this novel without undue harm.
On the other hand, the novel as it stands right now is still fun for Clancy fans or spy novel buffs. The meticulous description of spycraft establishes an engrossing atmosphere of authenticity. While this is in no way an essential Clancy novel nor even a particularly well-integrated one (unlike Patriot Games, no mentions of the events in Red Rabbit are ever uttered anywhere in the series, which is unusual for Clancy.), it’s a pleasant read, certainly a better one than any of Clancy’s sharecropped ghost-written novels. It’ll do until Ryan’s next (and probably last) adventure.