May I cut to the chase? DEAD OR ALIVE is the book that Tom Clancy fans have been waiting for. With the strong and capable contribution of Grant Blackwood, who brings Clancy’s major characters together, it is a magnum opus long enough for three books, yet reads and moves like a great short story. I kept waiting for one of those moments where things drag a bit. It occurs even in short novels, where you can almost feel the author take a breather, but that never happens here. The dialogue, setups, descriptions and characterizations are just as interesting and well-told as the life-or-death passages where all hell breaks loose.
"DEAD OR ALIVE is a step-by-step game of cat-and-mouse."
DEAD OR ALIVE is a step-by-step game of cat-and-mouse. The cat, in this case, is the Campus, an organization created under the presidential administration of Jack Ryan to carry out its mission of identifying, hunting down and eliminating terrorists, and to do so without outside oversight or supervision. The Campus is a small but capable group that includes two generations of black ops, John Clark and “Ding” Gomez, as well as brothers Dominic and Brian Caruso. The mouse is a thinly disguised Osama bin Laden caricature known as the Emir, a terrorist who is the most wanted man on earth and who, in an admittedly brilliant stroke, is hiding in plain sight under the nose of the nation he regards as the Great Satan.
The Campus, being an off-the-books organization that officially does not exist on the American intelligence grid, wants to locate the Emir in the worst possible way. The Carusos’ cousin, Jack Ryan, Jr., has decided that he wants a piece of the action as well. Having had a taste of field work more by accident than by design in THE TEETH OF THE TIGER, Ryan is hungry for more, but isn’t especially keen on letting his famous father know about his newfound avocation. The senior Ryan is faced with a major decision and a momentous opportunity provided in part by the current presidential administration, which is frequently wrong but never in doubt. When a number of seemingly disparate occurrences appear to indicate that the Emir is planning a major attack, the Campus begins a race against time to determine the exact details in order to head it off.
One of the major enjoyments of DEAD OR ALIVE is that Clancy and Blackwood aren’t quick at all to reveal precisely what the Emir has planned. Instead, they drop clues from multiple scenarios around the world, from Russia to Paris, from Sweden to the Hindu Kush, and from sources as varied as airplane mechanics to…Santa. I’m serious. You’ll look at the world, and the people who risk their lives on our behalf --- the rough men of whom George Orwell wrote, who stand ready in the night to do violence against those who would harm us --- in an entirely new light. You’ll also find that this is one of those rare giant books that, after close to a thousand pages, will leave you wanting even more.
While one could be forgiven for initially believing that DEAD OR ALIVE would be Clancy’s finis to his universe, it is quite clear after reading it that things are just getting warmed up. That does not mean that every single character we have come to know and love make it to the end of the finish line; not all of them do. I was surprised by who did not and how strongly it affected me. Clancy has always been a real-world guy, however, and in the real world the good guys take some hits.
Blackwood’s contribution to DEAD OR ALIVE --- equal parts experience, hard work, writing skill and storytelling craft --- cannot be overstated. If Clancy has been searching for his heir apparent, he has found him. I’m looking forward to more from both of them, individually and collaboratively, in the future.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010