My first reaction after learning of Vince Flynn's recent death was sorrow. My second was regret.
Sorrow that Flynn, the prolific author of thriller novels — he wrote 14 of them that sold some 15 million in the United States, including six that were No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list — had died recently in St. Paul of prostate cancer at the age of 47.
And regret that I hadn't recognized this superbly talented writer's ability to write compelling novels that struck a chord in readers' imagination and that, regrettably, I had turned down his request to help get his first novel published.
News of his untimely death prompted me to dig out a file labeled "Rejected Manuscripts" and his letter of April 23, 1996. At the time, I was still acting as a literary agent, which I had done while running my own consulting firm, although my full-time job was as editor of a new newspaper covering Congress and politics.
A mutual friend had recommended that Flynn seek me out after I had sold novels by two other St. Paul writers, Steve Thayer and Larry Millett, to Viking Penguin. "Theresa McFarland speaks very highly of you," Flynn wrote. "I appreciate you taking the time to look at my book, and I hope you enjoy it." He signed it, "Vincent J. Flynn."
I read the manuscript, which centered around Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who assassinated three powerful Washington political figures, and six days later wrote him back. "I read THE RIGHT TO RISE, and while I liked it very much and thought it very well written, it didn't strike any sparks with me," I wrote on April 29.
"You're a good writer and the story line moves along well, but it seemed to me you didn't have the Washington milieu quite right, which is difficult to do, even for those who have seen what it is like on the inside. Unfortunately, it didn't excite me enough to carry my interest through to the end."
I concluded, "I'm returning the manuscript and hope that you won't let the fact that it didn't knock me out discourage you in your effort to find a publisher, which I'm sure you will. Good luck and again, thanks for letting me read your manuscript."
Bad decision and poor judgment on my part. Flynn landed a deal with Simon & Schuster's Pocket Books with the help of a literary agency, and his novel, now titled "Term Limits," became a paperback bestseller in 1998.
Flynn went on to write a second book called "Transfer of Power" that featured protagonist Mitch Rapp — a hard-living freelance vigilante who pursued and killed would-be Islamic terrorists, sometimes at the request of the Central Intelligence Agency — and a dozen more thrillers centered around threats to our national security, all starring Mitch Rapp.
According to his obituary in the New York Times, Flynn's heroes were "the men and women of the Secret Service, the C.I.A., Special Forces, the whole national security apparatus. And the villains are, shockingly enough, Islamic radical fundamentalists. The secondary villains that I have are politicians and bureaucrats. It's very easy to build a story around that because it's reality."
I saw Flynn a few years ago at a book signing at a Barnes & Noble near the Pentagon, and reminded him that I had rejected his first novel, and he said with a smile, "I remember, but don't feel bad, because you weren't the only one." (I also told him that I had better luck against his father, who was a star first baseman for the St. Thomas baseball team when I pitched for St. John's.)
Still, I couldn't help but cringe every time I would see one of the latest Vince Flynn novels prominently displayed in bookstores and airports through the years. I wish I hadn't let my superior knowledge of the Washington milieu mislead me when he asked me to help get his first novel published.
Albert Eisele is founding editor and editor-at-large of The Hill. He has been a Washington correspondent for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Knight-Ridder newspapers, and press secretary for Vice President Walter Mondale.