By Julie Kramer
Thriller author Vince Flynn’s funeral was a heartbreaker. The line of mourners stretched for blocks. The ceremony had been pitched as a celebration of his life, but that’s difficult to take as gospel when someone dies at age 47, at the peak of talent.
Flynn, creator of the Mitch Rapp counter-terrorism series, died recently in Minnesota of prostate cancer. Not only did he top the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller lists, he had fans in high places – even the White House.
Former President George W. Bush sent a condolence note to Flynn’s widow, Lysa, reading, “Vince really loved you. He told me so.”
For a writer of political thrillers, there’s no finer praise than to be noticed in Washington. Other world leaders on the record as being fans include former president Bill Clinton and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
At signings, Flynn often entertained readers with a fun tale of meeting then-President Bush and being invited to continue their conversation in the presidential limo. Known for his extensive research regarding espionage, Flynn could always count on someone in the crowd to ask, “What did you and the president talk about?”
“He wanted to know where I got my information,” Flynn would laugh. “He thought I was a little too accurate.”
From Bartender to Bestseller
Flynn’s fourteen books have sold more than 15 million copies in the United States alone, and his path to publication was inspirational to many authors. He wrote his first novel, TERM LIMITS, while working nights, tending bar. After receiving 60 rejection letters, he self-published it in 1997, selling it out of the trunk of his car. One of the first bookstores to stock it was Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis. Even after reaching international fame, and even when he was too ill to tour, Flynn continued to sign books there out of friendship and loyalty.
Owners Gary Schulze and Pat Frovarp wept when they heard the news of his death.
“Not since my son died have I felt such a deep loss,” Frovarp said. “My heart is crying out to his family.”
“What I like most, the fame didn’t seem to get to him,” Schulze said. “He was totally unchanged, he truly stayed humble.”
Both the Minneapolis and St. Paul daily newspapers ran banner headline stories about Flynn’s death across the top of their front pages. And from Minnesota to Bagdad, readers mourned an author who was ahead of the curve in writing about terrorists.
“All of those troops in the mid east loved him,” Frovarp said, “and if that isn’t a legacy…let me tell you, they needed a hero, and he gave them one. Mitch Rapp.”
Supporting Other Authors
Flynn was generous to many writers – for my debut novel he gave me a laudatory endorsement (the publishing world calls them ‘blurbs’.) We both lived in Minnesota and had graduated from the same college, so our paths would occasionally cross; he always recognized me and asked about my writing career. Flynn had an incredible flair for making whoever was standing next to him feel special. To meet him, was to realize his people skills exceeded his writing skills.
“As good as Vince was on the page – and he gave millions of readers countless hours of pleasure – he was even more engaging in person,” said Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of his publisher, Simon & Schuster. “Yes, we will miss the Mitch Rapp stories that are classic modern thrillers, but we will miss Vince even more.”
I’m not the only writer who appreciated Flynn’s support. Some, like Brad Thor, went on to become #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestselling authors themselves.
“Vince read the manuscripts of more young, up-and-coming authors than anyone else I knew,” Thor said. “If he enjoyed your book, he would craft a wonderful blurb for it. Publishers saw it as money in the bank – some really serious sizzle added to your steak. But for authors, that Vince Flynn blurb was a badge of honor. It was recognition from a giant that you had done an outstanding job.”
Thor still treasures the Vince Flynn quote on the cover of his debut. “To be complimented by someone you so respect and hold in such high esteem is like nothing else in the world, especially when that blurb is for your very first novel.”
As big-hearted as Flynn was in helping rookie writers, he showed a competitive streak when it came to fellow bestsellers. One friend spoke of how Flynn once did an elated fist pump upon being notified that he had edged out Patricia Cornwell for the top spot on the NEW YORK TIMES list.
Summer Writing Ritual
WCCO-TV news anchor Frank Vascellaro played matchmaker for Flynn, introducing him to the woman who would become his wife. Both couples own lake cabins next door to each other.
“Vince had a great summer ritual,” Vascellaro said. “He’d jump in the lake every morning regardless of the weather to clear his head. Then he’d go to work in an office over the garage, sometimes writing for a couple of hours, sometimes all day. He was disciplined about his book deadlines because he knew people were counting on him.
“I’d ask him, “How did it go?” Sometimes he’d shrug and say, ‘I struggled with it today.’ Other times he’d smile and say, ‘I got through a couple chapters.’”
Vascellaro learned from experience not to watch TV dramas or spy movies with Flynn, who could be a terrible plot spoiler. “Before the show would even be halfway through, he already had figured out the twists and ending. That’s the kind of mind he had. He was prescient about the threat of radical fundamental Islamic terrorists before they were in the news.”
Nearly three thousand people crowded the Cathedral of St. Paul to say good-bye – even conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who had eulogized Flynn on the radio as being “a man’s man.” Bagpipes and an American flag led the funeral procession; Flynn’s wife and three children walked behind his casket along with his large Irish family.
Several priests and an archbishop presided on the altar. “Vince was not afraid to die,” Fr. Peter Laird told the audience, “but I know he did not want to go so soon.”
Some people chuckled when Flynn’s close friend, Tom Tracy, suggested during the eulogy “the acknowledgments were Vince’s best writing.” Sure enough, Tracy’s name appears in the acknowledgments for KILL SHOT. But the ceremony turned into a tearjerker when we were invited to join in singing “Amazing Grace.”
Bookmarks were given out, but they indicated nothing about Flynn’s writing career. His picture was printed on one side, on the other, the tag words KEEP THE FAITH with an inspirational poem.
Fighting Terrorists vs Fighting Cancer
I own all of Flynn’s books, but am still fuming because he killed off Mitch Rapp’s wife, Anna, in an explosion in CONSENT TO KILL, book six of his series. He later admitted he had mixed feelings about that plot development. He thought women readers might like Mitch better if he was single again, but instead he had received angry fan mail. It was only when I started writing novels myself that I understood authors have to make tough choices about which characters live or die.
Brad Thor credits Flynn with paving the way for political thriller authors to focus their imaginations from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
“Vince Flynn leaves behind the booming counter-terrorism genre – a genre he had every right to call his own – and with it, his body of exceptional thrillers, each of which challenge us to push ourselves to write the absolute best fiction we’re capable of.”
When I woke up June 19 to the news that Vince Flynn was dead, I was stunned. Even though I knew he had cancer, I was confident he would beat it just like Mitch Rapp could defeat any menace – foreign or domestic – as long as he had 400 pages. But while authors can control the endings to our books, we can’t write our own life endings. Vince overcame dyslexia to become a bestselling writer, but he couldn’t beat cancer.
Tami Hoag, another #1 NEW YORK TIMES bestselling novelist, summed it up well. “Meeting Vince, you would think, ‘Here’s a guy who should play a superhero in a movie: tall, good looking, athletic, great smile, great character.’ Which makes it all the harder to accept that he could be gone so soon. He should have lived to be 100. Unfortunately, cancer doesn’t discriminate.”
Flynn’s obvious legacies are his books and family, but he might have another lasting role as doctors and health advocates push to make him the face for earlier screening for prostate cancer. Such testing might have saved his life, and could save the lives of other men. And that’s not fiction.
Julie Kramer writes media thrillers set in the desperate world of TV news. Her sixth, DELIVERING DEATH, will be released in January. Kramer has won the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mainstream Mystery/Suspense, RT Reviewer’s Choice for Best First Mystery, and the Minnesota Book Award. Her work has also been nominated for the Anthony, Barry, Shamus, Mary Higgins Clark and RT Best Amateur Sleuth Awards.
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