Culture > Books

Books: Oakes solid

Books | William F. Buckley's spy novels stand the test of time

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

Now that the Cold War is ostensibly over, all the authors of spy novels have turned their attentions to such mundanities as Colombian drug lords, Middle Eastern terrorists, Neo-Nazi gangs, and shadowy Satanists. Oh, for the good old days when all the bad guys were regular old Communist tyrants.

Thanks to the editors at Cumberland House, those halcyon days are here again. Reprints of the classic Blackford Oakes espionage novels by conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. are now available-just in time to make your summer reading list.

I read each of these novels when they were first released in the '70s and '80s. At the time, the Evil Empire was in its final death throes-though almost no one yet knew it. The novels captured the spirit of the age. But when I first saw these reprints I had to wonder just how well such vintage anti-Communist adventures would hold up against the passage of time.

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They do surprisingly well. Mr. Buckley is a masterful prose craftsman, of course. But he also has a stunning grasp of history, a real knack for characterization, a keen ear for natural dialog, and a marvelous sense of humor. Indeed, 20 years after the fact, these books are as fresh as ever. Regrettably, they sometimes draw on the James-Bond-style sexual titillation of their times, which, though mild by today's standards, seems unfitting in a cultural conservative of Mr. Buckley's stature.

Saving the Queen takes place just after the coronation of the fictitious Queen Caroline of England in the early '50s. The Cold War is beginning to heat up-and the dread Soviet secret police in the KGB are cooking up a plot to discredit the young monarch. Blackford Oakes, recently graduated from Yale, must somehow infiltrate the royal palace, uncover the dastardly plot, discredit any and all traitors, protect the Queen, and save Western Civilization as we know it-and all in less than 300 pages.

Still in deep-cover for the CIA, Blackford Oakes gets his second assignment in Stained Glass. This time the setting is post-war Germany where memories of Hitler's Reich are still quite fresh and the yearning for a reunified Fatherland are growing ever more desperate. Once again the intrepid American spy must face off against Soviet agents, independent provocateurs, and naive liberals in order to make the world safe for democracy.

The plot of Who's On First revolves around the early cloak-and-dagger space race. Oakes is commissioned to derail the Soviets by kidnapping two Russian missile scientists. Pretty heady stuff for a recent college graduate.

Marco Polo, If You Can picks up the tale of the ever-escalating Cold War when Oakes discovers that a Soviet mole has infiltrated President Eisenhower's National Security Council. He must fight obstinate forces on both sides of the Iron Curtain to expose the danger and once again restore a sense of normalcy to the precarious balance of power.

I am happy to report that in each case the good guys win and the bad guys lose. And I am even happier to report that even knowing that much doesn't spoil the enjoyment of these historical thrillers.

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