This is the first Clancy novel in which the characters are more interesting than the hardware. Well, a little more interesting, anyway.
Superheroic, stoic Jack Ryan (the hero of four of Clancy's five previous novels) is called to action this time to help prevent a nuclear disaster and preserve the semblance of a Middle East peace plan. For most men such a task would amount to a career. For Ryan, it only eats up about a week.
Working under a less than mentally fit President, Ryan, along with FBI agent Dan Murray, deftly maneuvers behind the political scenes, constantly seeking explanations for a series of bizarre but interlocking incidents.
For Ryan, keeping the world in one piece is the easy part. Keeping his marriage to the dutiful Cathy together is a whole other story:
" 'Jack, what's wrong?' It seemed forever before she heard him speak.
" 'I don't know.' Jack rolled over, away from his wife, onto his back, and his eyes stared at the ceiling.
" 'I guess that's it.' Jack slurred the words. 'Sony, honey.'
"Damn damn damn! But before she could think to say something else, his eyes closed."
There are times—like that one—when The Sum of All Fears reads as if it were a Dynasty script that didn't quite make it. The rest of the time, it's like a John Wayne movie minus the wit.
But at least, with this novel, Clancy is attempting to deal with real people and real situations as opposed to devoting reams of pages to the specifications of a surface-to-air missile.
Then again, you don't buy his books for his prose style (a bad imitation of Sidney Sheldon) or to load up on his deft characterizations (one dimensional even here) or for his realistic dialogue ("Yeah, but remember my Russian is pretty thin. I can't catch nuances like you can").
You buy the books because Tom Clancy tells a certain kind of story—the high-tech thriller—better than anyone around, and in that respect The Sum of All Fears delivers in all the expected areas. (Putnam, $24.95)