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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Without Remorse

By Tom Clancy
Berkley Books, 750 pp, 1993

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm way behind on Clancy. I know it. I totally missed the boat through the 80s and 90s as his books were coming out. But I've seen the error of my ways and am slowly catching up. The remaining Jack Ryan books, from Debt of Honor to Red Rabbit, are sitting on my bookshelf and patiently waiting their turn.

I'll get to them. I promise.

But in the meantime, I must talk about Without Remorse.

It was fun, a riveting read, typical Clancy. One of the many criticisms I've seen leveled at him is that his books are cut and dry, black and white, good versus evil. No gray areas, no subtleties, no complexities. That's not the case with this book.

Without Remorse goes back to the late 60s or early 70s to tell the story of John Kelly, who becomes John Clark. Soon after the death of his pregnant wife, Kelly picks up a hot young thing on the side of the road, takes her on his boat, and engages in carnal relations. He takes her to his island home, where they meet Sam and Sarah Rosen, two doctors.

Kelly and the Rosens discover that the hot young thing - her name is Pam - is a druggie and a prostitute with a horrifying past. Kelly at first feels betrayed but decides to stick by her and help her clean herself up under the care of the kind Rosens.

But things don't go as planned, and Pam gets killed and Kelly nearly so by the pimp gang she escaped from. Kelly spends half of the rest of the novel tracking down pimps and drug dealers until he finds the one who killed Pam. Kelly murders these scumbags in cold blood.

In the meantime, he is also recruited by the CIA to join a special operation to bring home some twenty American POWs who the North Vietnamese claimed were dead. But they're not - they're imprisoned and interrogated by a Russian officer. That part of the novel is okay, made better by an American mole who tips off the Russians of the raid. But Kelly solves that (with the help of younger versions of Greer and Ritter).

So that's the book. Kelly seeks revenge and joins the CIA. The CIA thing is the cut and dry that bothers so many folks. Americans good, North Vietnamese and Russians bad. Never mind that that's pretty much the way it was.

The gray area is Kelly's one-man vigilante mission. Is he doing the right thing? Sure, these drug dealers are bad folks, but do they deserve to be murdered? And is Kelly the person to do it? Maybe they should be left to the police, but they seem powerless to stop them. One, in fact, is a dirty cop in the employ of Pam's pimp. Another cop is Emmet Ryan, investigating the sudden rash of drug dealer murders. And yes, he is Jack Ryan's father, and yes, a college-age Jack Ryan makes a cameo appearance.

So there's lots of gray here, and Clancy handles it well. I won't tell you how it ends, of course, but conclusions are made.

There's also not a lot of technical jargon. This book is the most character-driven Clancy novel yet, with the possible exception of Cardinal of the Kremlin. Kelly, Pam, the pimp, Greer, the Russian officer - these are all compelling and fascinating characters. That's what makes this book a success, not the action or cloak-and-dagger.

Next Clancy book: Debt of Honor.

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