While I've never read a Tom Clancy novel, it is hard to imagine one of them holding the reader's nerves on edge as well as Huchthausen and company do in this true story of a Soviet nuclear sub accident while on tour off the east coast of the US in 1986. The story has the tension of an adventure thriller, a spy novel, or a political thriller, along with the unlikely heroes and villains of a war novel like Catch 22 or The Naked and the Dead.
Failing Russian sub K-219, patched together with haphazard maintenance and already suffering the effects of a failed missile tube caused by a leak 10 years before, sets off for its regular patrol off the eastern US, all the while shadowed by America's superior electronic listening gear. When another missile tube springs a leak during evasion action triggered by an aggressive US sub captain, the interaction of the sea water with the volatile rocket fuels ignite chemical reactions and fires that spread deadly acid throughout the sub and burn through wiring necessary to control the sub--and its two nuclear reactors that fuel the engines.
Captain Britanov shines as the hero of the action, keeping his crew nearly intact--four would die in the initial explosion and fires--despite the rapidly deteriorating conditions. The Russian military command, which provided no support and even condemned Britanov for sabotage for losing his sub and its 30 nuclear warheads, and the American sub captain who dogged K-219 but provided no help, are the villains. While the authors make the point that the Russians were officially not allowed to accept help from the Americans, his lack of human feelings for the endangered crewmen is heartless and inexcusable.
Running underneath the story is a thread of paranoia that was captured in the fictional Fail-Safe twenty years earlier. It is chilling confirmation of the most cynical aspects of the fiction's portrayal of the military mindset of the Russian and American masters of war. That such paranoia could still drive disregard for human lives at the time of K-219's action is frightening.
The veracity of the story is bolstered by an extensive interview list, and the authors (one of them an officer who had served on K-219 before the accident) put it all together with perfect timing and a sense for the tense moments and decision points in the plot.