The Teeth of the Tiger, Tom Clancy

Putnam, 2003, 431 pages, C$40.00 hc, ISBN 0-399-15079-X

The most encouraging thing about Tom Clancy’s The Teeth of the Tiger is how comparatively slim it looks. After years of bloated 800+ pages novels with severe pacing problems, one could hope that Clancy had finally wizened up. Unfortunately, the length of this book ends up being one of the most deceptive things about a very disappointing novel.

I wanted not to bury this novel, but to praise it; after all, I have all of the Clancy novel in hardcover on my bookshelves, and despite our increasingly diverging political views, I have always kept a soft spot for his no-nonsense style of writing and his gift for plotting.

Sadly, little of that ends up in The Teeth of the Tiger, a novel that ends up smelling as if it escaped from those infamous “Tom Clancy’s” derivative lines. The setup seems depressingly familiar; as more evil middle-eastern terrorists plan a dastardly attack on America, a top-secret group of intelligence operatives fights to keep them away. It really does end up feeling a lot like Clancy trying to second-guess 11/09/2001, with all the predictable plotting that ensues.

Had Clancy moved away from his Ryanverse, it may not have been too bad, but unfortunately enough, this novel takes place after the end of Jack Ryan Sr.’s presidency and features Jack Ryan Jr. taking his father’s initial role as an analyst in the intelligence community. The big, big problem is that Clancy has to juggle twenty years of Ryanverse events with real-world history. So September 11 is somewhere in the background, along with Afghanistan and Homeland Security, but also the Ebola attack that led to a ground war in Saudi Arabia (Executive Orders) and the whole Red October business. Curiously, little is said of the plane crash on the Capitol (Debt of Honor) or the Chinese nuclear strike (The Bear and the Dragon), presumably because those didn’t fit. But the whole setup is increasingly far-fetched and Clancy would have been better off just scrapping the whole Ryanverse altogether rather than present an increasingly problematic “next generation”. A smaller problem is that the end of the Ryan presidency is glossed over, along with the dramatic death of one major fan-favourite character; most will feel cheated by the curt paragraph that describes what happened.

But wait! It gets worse! Clancy so loooves his characters that, guess what, those dastardly terrorists attack a mall where, as it happens, two of our main characters are shopping for shoes. Now, it just so happens that those two are members of the secretive “Campus” where, it just so happens, also works Jack Ryan Jr. Who, it just so happens, is not just also their cousin, but it also tracking down a guy who, it just so happens, is handling the finances for those very same terrorists! Wow! Some would call this series of links very convenient, but who knows—coming from Clancy, it just may be genius in disguise!

That’s bad enough, but what really hurts is the ideological position at the centre of the book. Basically, The Teeth of the Tiger is a book-length rationalization of why it’s quite OK for a shadowy agency, not controlled by the government, to go out in foreign countries and kill suspected associates of terrorists. No less. “The Campus” is an agency outside federal regulations —thinly protected by a stash of blank presidential pardons— which gets in the business of assassination as the novel begins. Oh, our two would-be-assassins do have a few doubts… but a convenient terrorist attack in which they witness the death of a little boy (awww) wipes out every possible moral qualms they may have kept from Sunday school. (“They’re the bad guys, bro!”) And so they go on their merry way, rubbing out people on the streets of Europe using information that may not be entirely solid.

Is this supposed to be good? Heroic? Lawful? Just? Am I the only one who still thinks vigilante-style retribution isn’t the sum of all answers? That it’s a simple-and-dumb solution to a complex problem? Is it perfectly acceptable to decree (without accountability, without recourse, without remorse) the death penalty on four targets whose tenuous support to terrorism was merely financial and logistical? Anyone who’s read Clancy for a while might justifiably ask whether this is from the same person who wrote Clear and Present Danger, a novel in which Jack Ryan Sr. went against his own government because it was involved in violent off-the-book operations which betrayed the spirit of the American Constitution.

It would be inaccurate (and libellous) to portray Clancy as a racist or an anti-Muslim. But his portrayal of the bad guys (“bad guys” and “good guys” are helpfully pointed out in the novel, so don’t worry about making the distinction for yourself) is crude enough to warrant special attention. (By far the most hilariously offensive moment comes as one of the terrorists lays, dying, on the floor of a sports-goods store. One of the Killer Catholic Twins has the decency to put a football in his limp hands and add “I want you to carry this to hell with you. It’s a pigskin, —-hole, made from the skin of a real Iowa pig.” [P.252] Touching; I could hear legions of Rush Limbaugh fans weeping.) Clancy even feels obliged to add two pages on how “terrorism had about as much to do with the Islamic religion as it did with Catholic and Protestant Irishmen” [P.383] (Ever the good lad, Jack Ryan Jr. comes across this stupendous insight by “googling his way into Islam”. And yet people keep saying that a good conservative education has no benefits…) Fair enough, but next time it may be helpful to actually have real and realistic Arab/Muslim characters rather than making all of his protagonists good-old Catholic-Irish boys mowing down terrorists through Europe. This, coupled with other typical conservative tics such as the knee-jerk euro-bashing (with a particular dislike for the French; one wonders if those slurs will be kept in translation), media bashing and a rather short-sighted view of politicians, finally makes me wonder if Clancy, for all his gifts, may just not be as smart as I thought he was. Or getting dumber by the book.

Certainly, other areas of the novel aren’t much brighter: The plotting also has its share of dumb moves; once the terrorists are identified and one lead is uncovered in the financial labyrinths of Europe, you would think that the best way to react would be to study the subject and identify his links to other terrorists. Naaah; Clancy goes gung-ho happy and immediately send his good little Catholic twin assassins to rub out the guy in a busy street. They do that in the hope of forcing other guys to react, calling it “recon-by-fire”. Uh-huh. Don’t let Clancy anywhere near the Organized Crime units, please. Other deeply dumb stunts abound, such as sending a team of fraternal twins (their mom “must have punched out two eggs that month”, as it’s delicately referred to on pages 32 and 89) as a tracking/assassination team. You’d think that a suspect might go “huh?” after seeing two eerily similar guys around (See P.74: “People often remarked on their resemblance, though
it was even more apparent when they were apart”), but apparently that doesn’t seem to bother Clancy very much. (Neither does the idea of sending an untrained ex-president’s son on an assassination mission, for that matter. Makes you wonder what Chelsea Clinton truly does in her spare time, doesn’t it?)

Once again, there are clear signs that Putnam’s editors have all given up on Clancy. Beyond the pacing problems, the bone-headed plotting, the flamboyant jingoism (anyone even considering an opposing viewpoint is accused of defending the devil), this novel (like the two before it) suffers from bouts of bad writing. Once again, every half-clever line is repeated at least twice in the course of the novel. (Some men may need killin’ more than horses need stealin’, but some novels sure need editin’) Some sentences have missing words. See if you can make sense of this comma-ridden one: “What to drink? If he was having a New York lunch, then cream soda, but Utz, the local potato chips, of course, because they’d even had them in the White House—at his father’s insistence.” [P.214]

Technical accuracy? Don’t make me laugh. The time during which Clancy was considered an authority has long passed. Since Rainbow Six‘s memorable “life detectors” blunder, Clancy doesn’t even try to fact-check his stuff. Here, the NSA routinely crack all electronic traffic as a matter of routine, and our characters can check not just their email, but everyone else’s too. Convenient, especially when the all-magical “Campus” can simply slurp off the traffic being exchanged (over the airwaves!) between the NSA and the CIA. Isn’t there anything a rogue operation won’t do?

Then there are the characters. Good little Jack Jr., praising his pop at every second internal monologue. The Killer Catholic Twins, who never seem to be any less than perfect. But then again, they’re all there to kill terrorists; no further development is needed. It’s certainly not as if we get to know them through adversity, because they just never fail. (Well, except for the odd occasional spilt wine, in a hideous plot cheat no one is going to forgive.)

All of which may have been forgiven if the book actually had some suspense in it. But save for a few moments of tension whenever the action is about to begin, The Teeth of the Tiger is a thrill-free thriller. The mid-book terrorist attack has its moments or two, but everything pretty much goes like planned for the rest of the book. It’s dull and linear with no surprises: there is nothing in here that even looks like “rising stakes”. The second half of the novel is pure eye-for-an-eye neo-conservative wanking, as our two good little wisecracking Catholic Assassins joyride through Europe (driving brand-name cars), only stopping to kill the next terrorist-by-association. It brought back to mind a similar trip in Nelson deMille’s The Lion’s Game… except that in deMille’s case, it was a terrorist travelling through America to kill American servicemen. Hmm…

Suffice to say that there is no heightening tension in The Teeth of the Tiger. It ends when there are no more easy targets to kill. The first half reads like a watered-down mixture of The Sum of All Fears (terrorists plan an attack in excruciating detail) and Rainbow Six (secret terrorist-killing unit is put together) while the second all brings to mind a thin rehash of Red Rabbit with Ryan Jr.’s contrived arrival in the field and his rite of passage where he proves his all-American manhood by killing one of the terrorists. But if you truly want to compare this latest novel with something bearing the Clancy name, you’d have to go and check the awful “Tom Clancy’s” derivative work; this latest novel feels as contrived, as lazy and as dumb as anything in the “Net Force”, “Op-Center” or “Power Plays” series. (Indeed the idea of a “good guy” rich conservative having his elite force of operatives ready to kill people around the world is a direct riff on Politika, the first “Power Plays” book.) The derivatives have finally tainted the main stream of Clancy’s work: Once you start playing with easy money…

Worse of all is the realization that the end of the book is merely a customary one that solves nothing and simply sets up a sequel —or, goodness forbid, a series of sequel. (Last lines: “The enemy could not possibly know what kind of cat was in the jungle. They’d hardly met the teeth. Next, they’d meet the brain” [P.431] Oooh!) Don’t believe the length of the book; this is merely part one of a bigger (but maybe not all that greater) work. It’s not exactly a cliffhanger, but all that’s missing is a “to be continued”.

If I take a deep breath and temporarily disengage my liberal/pacifist/Catholic ethical module, I’d still like to point out that the book is clearly written and that Clancy’s depiction of the military/espionage world (aside from all of that “Campus” garbage) still feels much more credible than most of his colleagues. You can easily read The Teeth of the Tiger in a single quiet afternoon, though the question arise whether you really want to do so. I certainly would have been pleased to savage the book even more if I hadn’t read The Teeth of the Tiger right after Joe Weber’s truly wretched Primary Target, another Middle-Eastern-terrorist book that -in comparison- clearly shows the difference between a hack like Weber and a flawed-but-competent novelist like Clancy.

In Science Fiction fan circles, the gradual slide in mediocrity of a once-great author is often explained away by saying that “the brain-eater got him”. One can reliably track the careers of such luminaries as Larry Niven, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to that point where every successive book gets worse, and worse, and worse. I think that with The Teeth of the Tiger, Clancy has confirmed the trend of his last few books, and may even have entered the final, terminal part of his career; the brain-eater has got him, and the results are spectacular.

(While doing research for this review, I came along this rather telling quote from Clancy himself, posting on alt.books.tom-clancy (June 30th, 2003): “For those of you who think you can do it better than I do, please give it a try. If my pride can go before the fall, you own it to your intellectual integrity (chuckle) to expose yourselves as I do. You know, as I approach -gasp- 60 I find myself becoming less tolerant of critics. Perhaps this is because they are like reporters, or-worse-politicians.” Well, what can I possibly add to that?)

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