Review: Our Man in Havana

our man in havana

Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene. New York: Open Road Media, 2018 (originally published in 1958).

Summary: A struggling Englishman in 1950’s Cuba is recruited to be a secret agent for MI6 and ends up deceiving the service only to find his fabrications becoming all too real.

James Wormold is a struggling proprietor of a vacuum cleaner business in 1950’s Cuba. His wife has left him and their teenage daughter Milly. He struggles to sell vacuum cleaners named “the Atomic Pile,” a real loser, and come up with enough money to support his daughter’s expensive interests while guarding her against the romantic interests of police Captain Segura, known for his ruthless investigative techniques. At first, this appears to be another one of Graham Greene’s middle-aged men struggling to make some sense of their existence in a far-off foreign land. And it is, with a difference. Comedy. Dark comedy.

Then Hawthorne, an MI6 agent walks into his life and tries to recruit him as an agent. Cuba is a hotbed of competing interests under the Batista regime of the mid-1950’s. Wormold finally realizes that the money he will be paid is the answer to his financial woes. Except he has to become an agent, recruit sub-agents, and send “reports” via code. He confides in his one friend, Dr Hasselbacher, his dilemma and Hasselbacher suggest that he could invent them. He does, a mix of fictional and actual figures who don’t really work for him. He creates reports from newspapers, and sends drawings of an “installation” based on blown up drawings of vacuum parts.

Everyone back at MI6 believes they’ve found a “natural” and his reports create quite a stir. Hawthorne has his doubts, but as the lone doubter in a company of believers, he keeps silent. The do arrange a secretary, Beatrice, to keep an eye on him and his agents. The game appears to be up when a man who has the name of one of his fictional agents turns up dead, and another is shot at. It appears that someone close to him has discovered his “reports” and that the English aren’t the only ones who believe Wormold’s reports. He faces an assassination threat of his own, and has to figure out how to extract himself from Cuba. But first he wants to get a list of agents Segura has, and avenge a murder, leading to a most unusual game of checkers.

Even if he can escape danger from Segura and foreign operatives he (and Beatrice) have to face the music with MI6. All I will say is that the ending is Greene’s “last laugh” at MI6, and all the government experts who are too clever for their own good.

Review: Who’s On First

Who's on First

Who’s On First (A Blackford Oakes Mystery), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (originally published 1980).

Summary: Oakes becomes involved in a plot to abduct a Soviet scientist couple involved in the research to launch Sputnik.

CIA agent Blackford Oakes leaves Hungary with the memory of the execution of Theophilus Molnar during the quenched Hungarian uprising of 1956. Having provided access to a “safe” house, somehow his safety is betrayed, Molnar is arrested, and executed on the spot.

Vadim and Viktor sustained each other through eight years in the Gulag. Both were scientist arrested for “anti-Soviet” agitation. Viktor believes Vadim saved his life by giving him hope. Later Vadim defects, and becomes involved with the CIA as “Serge.”

The Soviet Union and the United States are in a mad race for space, to put the first satellite in orbit. Each has technical problems, which if solved would clear the way to launch. Each has the answers the other needs.

All these factors come together in Paris when Viktor and his wife Tamara are in Paris for a scientific conference. It is decided to abduct the couple, who are working on the critical research, using the friendship with Vadim to elicit their co-operation. Oakes is enlisted as a taxi driver to abduct them during a staged bus breakdown, with a cover plot of an Algerian radical group seeking an exchange of weapons for hostages.

Unbeknownst to Oakes, KGB agent Bolgin knows Oakes is in Paris. A mole in the French resistance develops a plot to seize and execute Oakes. Oakes, recognized in photos at the abduction scene, unknowingly betrays the kidnapping as a CIA operation. The attempt to obtain Russian secrets jeopardizes the lives of Oakes, and Viktor and Tamara. Along with the death of Theo, all of this raises questions for Oakes, questions that if he survives could end his career. Meanwhile, questions of a different sort at a higher level raise the question of whether winning the space race is worth it, even as a critical operation to sink a Russian freighter carrying a critical piece of technology is counting down to zero hour.

Buckley weaves a compact, fast paced espionage novel around these elements. He recalls the mood that existed in the Cold War era leading up to the launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, an event that actuated a military and scientific effort in the United States anticipated in this novel. He exposes the moral dilemmas of what Cold War maneuvering meant for the individuals whose futures and even lives might be sacrificed in covert efforts to attain a benchmark of supremacy. Having missed this series when it first came out, I’m glad for the second chance afforded by the folks at Open Road Media.

 

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!