The Intriguing Legacies of Vince Flynn


This story appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. 

Vince Flynn was a man with a big personality, a big heart, and a big following. Beginning in the mid-1990s, he created a body of work featuring a counterterrorism agent named Mitch Rapp and plot lines so plausible he captured the interest of readers and government officials alike.

This month, “American Assassin,” the backstory behind the series, will make its box office debut, days after the release of the 16th book in the Rapp series, “Enemy of the State.”

It’s a bittersweet moment, for Vince succumbed to prostate cancer in 2013 before work began on the film. But Lysa Flynn is upbeat and excited, for she feels her late husband’s presence everywhere. And she believes he would share her satisfaction with the film that puts faces to his characters.

With the spotlight on his work, it seemed timely to contemplate the legacy of the Minnesotan who achieved international acclaim as a writer despite – or because of – his dyslexia.

The storyteller’s story is compelling because it’s about love and loyalty, tenacity and tragedy. And, like every good story, it prompts reflection and discussion, laughter and tears.

The fifth of seven children, Vince was a tall, handsome guy who loved good banter, red wine, cigars, his alma maters, his country, and, most of all, Lysa and their three kids.

Attending St. Thomas Academy was a family tradition so Vince entered STA in 1980 with confidence bordering on cockiness. Over the years, the competition and influences of the all-male, military, Catholic high school in Mendota Heights tempered his cockiness.

Though he had many friends, the bond he formed with Tom Tracy days into freshman year was dubbed a “bromance.” It spanned schools, careers, marriages, and kids. When Vince died in June 2013, Tracy delivered the eulogy to a packed Cathedral of St. Paul. He was one of several who spoke with me recently about Vince.

Sports allowed Vince to shine; academics presented challenges. Though he’d been diagnosed in grade school, Vince kept his dyslexia under the radar until college, when his subpar work on a paper prompted a professor to question whether he’d graduate.

 Failure wasn’t an option. So the man who rarely cracked a book immersed himself in thrillers, finding ways to plod through them – and learn from them.He graduated from the University of St. Thomas in 1988, then worked in food sales and commercial real estate. He applied to officer candidate school but his honesty tripped him up. The Marine Corps didn’t accept applicants with a history of concussions.

He decided to try his hand at a novel, writing by day and bartending by night. He discovered the dyslexia that plagued him as a reader helped him as a writer. He had a gift for seeing the big picture — and that was useful in developing complex plots.

Grammar and spelling stumped him. So he shuttled his first manuscript piecemeal to friends like Tracy, an English major. Tracy and his wife, Val, were among the first to read, critique, and mark up the manuscript Vince unsuccessfully pitched to more than 60 publishers.

Undeterred by the rejections, Vince secured financial backers and self-published “Term Limits” in 1997. Leveraging his large network and sales acumen, he sold the inventory housed in the trunk of his car.

He persuaded the Har Mar Barnes & Noble store manager to carry “Term Limits.” Brisk sales led to an agent who landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster. ­­

Each fall Vince returned to the Har Mar Barnes & Noble to introduce his latest work. He developed a large and loyal following as his books became New York Times bestsellers and made their way around the world. He accrued an online following driven by fans like “Ryan the Rappologist,” for whom the character is larger than life, like his creator.

Vince was working on his second book when he met the woman he married less than two years later. Beautiful and poised, Lysa is as reserved as Vince was outgoing.

Never involved with the books, Lysa has enjoyed being engaged with the film. She visited the set in London and Rome. She’ll attend the premier in Los Angeles this month. The film has her blessing.

Although his universe grew, Vince was most comfortable in the Twin Cities and at his Wisconsin lake home, where he spent summer days pounding out whatever story had percolated in his mind over the winter.

Always confident, he reached out to President Bill Clinton on a crowded New York City street corner, making an introduction that proved unnecessary, for the president was well acquainted with his work.

He met with President George W. Bush and the King of Jordan. He was a popular media guest, for he loved to debate and opine on his worldviews.

Vince was generous with time, attention, and money. Passionate about STA, he served on its board and dogged donors to support a capital campaign for much-needed updates. He argued STA must maintain its rigorous academic standards and accommodate the C students who would also benefit from the school culture.

He didn’t pull punches. “He could tell you what you needed to hear, whether it was good or bad, with a smile on his face and you’d walk away feeling just fine, thinking, he just insulted me but I feel good,” Lysa Flynn recalls.

He inspired nonreaders to open a book. He encouraged struggling students to “suck it up” and figure out a path to success. He reached out to other patients, like Patrick Deasey, a senior at STA who was waging his second cancer battle, encouraging him to keep the faith.

An affinity for the military led him to “Tee It Up for the Troops,” a nonprofit started in 2005 by a Minnesota soldier’s family. Vince became a donor, champion, and confidant of veterans he met at foundation events. When “American Assassin” opens in Inver Grove Heights veterans will see it as guests of Lysa Flynn.

Vince didn’t join the military but he served our country in his own way. He had the backs of those who serve and protect, like his brother Tim, a St. Paul Police Department SWAT team member.

He was masterful at engaging people in conversation and assembling bits of information. When members of an elite military team visited St. Paul in 2012, Tim Flynn watched typically taciturn tough guys share war stories with his brother.

Vince had a vision of his characters and dreamed of seeing them on the big screen. When the opportunity arose he sold the movie rights to CBS Films. Discussions ebbed and flowed for years, allowing producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura to discern Vince’s vision and priorities.

In 2010 it appeared the film was moving ahead. Vince was jazzed. Friends, family, and fans debated casting choices: who would play the taut, olive-skinned Mitch Rapp? Vince was more open to ideas than the filmmakers, suggesting Will Smith, a box-office favorite at the time.

But the film stalled.

Seven years passed before Lysa Flynn met Dylan O’Brien, the 26-year-old actor CBS Films cast as Mitch Rapp. She felt such peace with the choice it was as if Vince had a hand in choosing him.

She’d met Mitch Rapp.

Though he regrets they couldn’t complete the project while Vince was alive, di Bonaventura hopes they can fulfill Vince’s dream of perpetuating the Mitch Rapp franchise on the big screen.

But turning a successful book series into a film is tricky.

Mitch Rapp is a seasoned assassin in most of the books but the film introduces him as a freshly trained novice determined to avenge his fiancé’s death. “American Assassin” is set in the present, rather than years ago, as in the book. It was a practical calculation. Introducing Mitch Rapp as a young man in this timeframe affords the filmmakers greater latitude in developing the story over time.

Lysa Flynn applauds the approach and dismisses concerns about insignificant changes such as the ethnicity of character Irene Kennedy or whether Rapp is right- or left-handed. Vince was not attached to the details, she says. His goal was to tell the story of a young man who was drawn to right wrongs and put faces to the anonymous individuals who serve our country. And the film accomplishes that.

Tenacity and optimism have their limits. Though Vince assured others he would survive the treatments and the cancer, his health declined. In the spring of 2013 he tightened his inner circle, remaining connected by a ring rosary in one hand and cell phone in the other. When he died on June 19, 2013, family, friends, and business associates were completely unprepared.

His death presented a dilemma for Simon & Schuster. Continue the Mitch Rapp series or let it go? In a leap of faith, Kyle Mills, an accomplished creator of his own series, became the stepparent of the Rapp series.

His job is to write a book Vince would have written, rather than his own book featuring Vince’s characters. He’s bringing some much-needed humanity to the assassin. In “Enemy of the State” Mills lifts Rapp from his despair over losing his wife and introduces a new dimension to a singularly focused protagonist.

Though it’s been much debated, we’ll never know who Mitch Rapp was modeled after. But the woman who shared Vince’s life says the loyalty, integrity, tenacity, and snappy one-liners were definitely Vince.

And his legacy? His is a storyteller’s legacy.

“These books live on. His name is all over them. His words are in them,.” Lysa says. “And what’s better to leave behind than the written word? And…since he’s Mitch Rapp, he lives on.”