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Nice to have Tom Clancy back
on December 8, 2010
The Amazon description has the book at 848 pages, but my copy, purchased at retail, is 950 pages. And--as with all the other Clancy books after Red October--I was the first one in line, and read it through on the first day. Harry Potter fans have their vices too, so I'm told.
"Dead or Alive" is in most respects exactly what you expect from Clancy--globe-trotting special agents whose names are now familiar. Exquisitely researched, down to almost mind-numbing detail on everything from internet protocols and encryption procedures, to the operation of weapons systems, and the layouts of neighborhoods half a world away.
It is a terrific book, and will be embraced by Clancy fans all over. It falls somewhat short of five stars for several reasons. Without giving away too much of the plot, I found the big targets in "Dead or Alive" to be implausible: why not go after Chicago or LA, given the ultimate objective to kill as many people as possible? Why target a huge South American oil refinery, when all of East Houston will do just as well? Just me, though.
But the second objection was what I consider a glaring, and most uncharacteristic mistake by Clancy. In providing background on Iranian army moves along the Iraqi border, he describes the Iraqi Shi'a population as a minority, and subject to persecution by the Sunni majority. In fact, it's the other way around. 80% of Iraq is Shiite, but Saddam Hussein was a Sunni, which is the primary reason the Sunni countries in the Middle East--which is all the others except for Iran--almost uniformly opposed his removal. It was unimportant to the plot, but I'm surprised that it survived what was probably double- and triple-checking by the editors, and no doubt by Clancy himself.
The Clancy books are superb, each for different reasons: "Red October" for naval and submarine operations; "Cardinal" for espionage tradecraft; "Clear and Present Danger" for small-unit combat operations; "Debt of Honor" for the workings of the financial markets, and so on. "Dead or Alive" doesn't have quite the intrigue those books do. And it is perhaps unfair to Clancy that he himself has set such a high bar with his previous work, that "Teeth" and "Dead or Alive" can't quite get to the same level that his previous works did. The technological detail is evident, as is the character development. But the sense of dread and foreboding and emotion that was conjured up before just isn't there. John Clark going after a drug ring that use prostitutes as drug mules (Without Remorse), or a psychotic setting off a nuke during the Super Bowl (Sum of All Fears), or another developing a strain of Ebola that is released in a dozen cities at a time (Executive Orders)--those books simply don't allow the reader to put them down. Also in those, he did a great job of developing the characters of the victims--the women used by the drug gangs, the traders and portfolio managers whose world was being turned upside down for reasons they didn't understand, the Secret Service agents who sacrifice their lives to protect a nursery full of toddlers, traveling salesmen whose insides were being ripped apart. They were deeply emotional, thrilling and exciting. "Dead or Alive" is very good, but not as good as those.
All that said, I'm already looking forward to his next one.