In Tom Clancy, the culture wars met suspense novels

Some unfortunate authors, whose critical acclaim exceeds their book sales, get pigeonholed as “writer’s writers.” Then there’s Tom Clancy. The author of 17 bestsellers, who died at age 66 on Tuesday, scoffed at any literary fancy. A former insurance salesman, Clancy’s self-professed goal was to be read, and to make money; he was the ultimate accountant’s writer.

Clancy’s thrillers sold millions, and his strengths as a storyteller are undeniable. Books like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Patriot Games” went on to become hit movies, making Clancy a household name in the 1980s and ’90s. Then again, his books reflected, and in some ways exacerbated, the cultural polarization of that era and the current one. His books glorified square-jawed military men, while sometimes indulging in caricatures of unpatriotic critics. That prep-school educated peace activist? Inevitably, a Russian spy.

Clancy’s defenders would argue that his books are mostly about suspense and cool hardware — and, besides, that left-leaning writers have long described US military figures in a one-dimensional, unflattering manner. But either way, it’s too bad when best-selling books pass Vietnam-era divisions and resentments along to subsequent generations. And for a storyteller of Clancy’s talents, it was unnecessary: His books would have been big hits no matter what.