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.