Saving the Queen, William F. Buckley, Jr. New York, Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published in 1976).
Summary: The first of Buckley’s Blackford Oakes espionage novels, covering his recruitment to the CIA and first mission, to ferret out the person high up in British government betraying atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
Most people know William F. Buckley, Jr. as the founder of the National Review, for his witty and erudite conversations on Firing Line, and maybe for his God and Man at Yale. Inspired by Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, he decided to try his hand at the spy novel, creating Blackford Oakes, a Yale graduate, World WW II fighter pilot, breaker of rules and conventions who is recruited into the CIA. Saving the Queen is the first of eleven novels that Buckley wrote in this genre. Now, thanks to a collaborative arrangement between Mysterious Press and Open Road Media, the whole series is once again available.
The novel is framed by Oakes being subpoened to testify about the Agency during a congressional witch hunt. Will he tell he truth and possibly betray national secrets and personal friends? Will he “take the Fifth” and bring suspicion down upon himself? Here, as in his life growing up and first mission, Oakes finds a way to go outside the rules.
It began at Greyburn, a British boys school where he lasted only weeks, before a humorous and belittling drawing of a teacher, and a beating by the headmaster in front of his friend, Anthony Trust, results in his willing departure from the school. A brief but successful flight career, studies at Yale, along with time in France and family in London make him an ideal CIA candidate, recruited by his old friend trust.
After his initial training, he learns of his assignment, to insinuate himself into the top circles of British royal life, to discover who it is around young Queen Caroline, who is betraying atomic secrets to the Russians. His cover is as an engineer working for an American foundation. He succeeds beyond his handlers’ expectations, first getting invited to a reception where he meets the Queen, who is taken by his tongue in cheek repartee. An invitation to Windsor Castle follows, ostensibly to examine engineering drawings in Windsor’s archives. Just how far he succeeds in achieving intimacy with the Queen and her circle, I will leave to the reader, but he discovers the source of the leaks, a relative close to the Queen, who uses her to gain access to the secrets he is passing along to the Russians.
One of his handlers is “Rufus,” a legendary operative from the World War II era. As Rufus ponders Oakes intelligence, he recognizes the explosive potential of this revelation, which could bring down the Queen and the throne, unless a way could be found to eliminate the source. In the climax to the novel, Oakes, whose own cover may be compromised, is called upon to finish the job, possibly losing his own life in the process.
Bond, a Catholic and a conservative, is no prude. This is an adult novel, in the vein of Ian Fleming’s, Bond. Oakes seems a kind of American counterpart, with perhaps a greater shrewdness and less gadgetry. I suspect their are future Blackford Oakes books in my life. At very least, there are a couple more on my Kindle!