Review: The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod

The Story of Henri Tod (Blackford Oakes #5), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1983).

Summary: As East Germany takes steps to stem the emigration of its people to the west through East Berlin in 1961, Blackford Oakes is tasked to find out what their intentions are and how they and Moscow will respond if NATO and the US intervenes.

After appearing weak and inexperienced in an initial meeting with Nikita Khrushchev President Kennedy learns that East Germany is taking steps to partition East and West Berlin to stem the tide of people emigrating from East to West Berlin and West Germany. This would violate agreements made at the end of World War II, and could trigger a new war, perhaps even a nuclear conflict between the US and the Soviet Union. CIA agent Blackford Oakes is tasked with getting critical intelligence to determine whether Berlin will be completely isolated from the West, and what the East will do if NATO responds.

Oakes key contact with East Berlin and the East Germans is Henri Tod. Tod leads a resistance organization from West Berlin against the Communists. They call themselves The Bruderschaft and are not above violent efforts to subvert the Communists. He has become enemy Number One but has eluded capture. But the Communists have discovered an Achilles heel. Tod, whose real name was Toddweiss, was a German Jew, who along with his beloved sister Clementa, was shielded by the Wurmbrand family, when Jews were being sent to the death camps. They spirit him out of the country when he becomes draft-eligible. They pay with their lives and Clementa is sent to a camp to die. But she is liberated by Soviet troops, only to become their captive. Thought dead, she lives, and becomes the means to lure Tod and capture him, with Oakes being involved as an intermediary.

Meanwhile, East German leader Walter Ulbricht also has his own Achilles, a nephew Caspar, who he has taken under his wing as a personal assistant, perhaps to atone for killing his father. Caspar has discovered the rail car used by Hitler, abandoned in a rail yard, and turns it into a love nest for him and his girlfriend Claudia. Their paths cross with Tod when Tod is wounded after an assassination of an East German official and the rescue him from his pursuers, nursing him back to health in the rail car, and becoming converts to his cause and a source of critical information.

Blackford Oakes has all this to deal with, as he tries to get the needed intelligence to the President. How will he respond to the likely trap using Tod’s sister? How will he work with the independent Tod and his rogue organization? How will they react to the intelligence they are passing along to Oakes? And what will the U.S. government do?

The book is a page turner, moving quickly between Kennedy, Khruschev and Ulbricht, Oakes and Tod, Caspar and Claudia. Perhaps the most fascinating element is the challenge of divining an enemy’s intent and character, what action one should take, and how one’s adversary will respond. Anyone who has studied this era realizes how easily things could have turned out otherwise than they did, a salutary lesson for our own day.


Review: Saving the Queen

saving the queen

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!