This was Tom Clancy’s first published novel, set during the Cold War amid high tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union, and the first of many books to feature Jack Ryan. The book begins in Russia, with the departure of the new submarine, Red October, from its base for exercises in the north Atlantic: the submarine has been built with a revolutionary new form of propulsion (in addition to its normal nuclear-powered engines) which, it is hoped, will render the submarine completely invisible to sonar tracking.
However, Captain Marko Ramius, the distinguished half-Lithuanian captain of the submarine, has different ideas: he plans to use the exercise to outwit the Soviet Navy and defect to America, bringing the submarine with him. Ramius is disillusioned with the Soviet system, blaming it for the preventable death of his beloved wife, and now having no loyalty to the system in which he has grown up and won renown.
As a complication, he had left a letter with his superiors, explaining his plan and challenging them to find the Red October. Thus follows a fascinating chase and game of hide and seek for very high stakes across the Atlantic, as the Soviets try to track the submarine and the Americans, who are obviously not being given the full story, try to work out what is happening from the limited information they are getting from official sources and unofficial agents, and their submarine tracking systems; while Ramius tries to evade all detection.
That’s pretty much the plot, but the way Clancy handles it is done well. It’s a thick book, but Clancy sustains the tension very well throughout, giving us multiple points of view – looking in at the Red October herself, at the chasing submarines, from both sides, at Soviet High Command, at the CIA, and so on. The style is unpolished – bad or unpopular characters are clearly signalled, for instance, and most of the US Navy personnel are portrayed as very competent, highly intelligent, often cerebral types. The out of date technology (cutting-edge at the time of publication – 1984) raises a bit of a smile from a reader 25 years later, but it’s quite appropriate.
Clancy also doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that all the Soviets are bad guys, and shows us mutual respect between officials on both sides, and the multiple points of view give the reader insights into thoughts and behaviour unknown to the protagonists. It has a large cast of characters, which can be confusing at times to remember who’s who and which agency they work for! There aren’t many women – not particularly surprising, given the time when it was written – though I’ve mentioned before that Clancy seems to consider women characters rather irrelevant.
Altogether, it’s an entertaining Cold War thriller (I haven’t seen the film version with Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin), tense and twisty and enjoyable.