Review: Stained Glass

Stained Glass (Blackford Oakes #2), William F. Buckley, Jr. New York: MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Media, 2015 (first published in 1978).

Summary: When a charismatic German who fought against the Nazis in the resistance in Norway campaigns to become Chancellor on a platform to reunite Germany, Soviets and Americans come together to block this, with Blackford Oakes at the center, restoring a family chapel of the candidate.

Count Axel Wintergren participated in the Nazi invasion of Poland, disappearing and turning over Nazi invasion plans to the Poles. For the remainder of the war, he fought with the resistance in Norway, returning to his village and family enclosure after the war. Elections for the Chancellorship in West Germany are coming with Konrad Adenauer the leading candidate. That is until Wintergren. Over the months, he has slowly built a following throughout the country, then announced his candidacy. The country is electrified with this youthful face with a radical idea that captures their hearts: reunite Germany. Outside of Germany no one likes this idea. Not the Soviets whose sphere of influence includes East Germany. Not the Americans who recognize the possibility that World War III could break out with NATO dangerously unprepared and the only deterrent being America’s nuclear arsenal.

Enter Blackford Oakes, whose engineering skills qualify him to restore the St. Anselm chapel on Wintergren’s estate, allowing him to get close to Wintergren, to pass along intelligence, to dissuade…and more? There are two surprises for the Americans. One is that Oakes cover is blown. Chief KBG agent for Europe Boris Bolgin know who he’s working on. The other is that the Soviets have their own agent, Erika Chadinoff, working as Wintergren’s translator. The bug in Oakes’ room at the chateau traces back to her room.

All of this brings the Americans and Soviets into a most unlikely alliance. Wintergren must be stopped. When attempts to torpedo his standings in the polls through apparently compromising personal information fail and backfire, they conclude there is only one option left, to eliminate Wintergren. Both Bolgin and his CIA counterpart look to Oakes to do the deed.

There is just one problem. Oakes has come to respect and admire Wintergren as one of a kind in his generation. Meanwhile, Wintergren’s security man has growing suspicions of Oakes, as does Wintergren’s mother. All this with global thermonuclear conflict hanging in the balance.

Actually, it doesn’t fall to Oakes alone. Erika Chadinoff is in on the alliance. Actually, they had already formed an intimate alliance of sorts, the typical spies in bed trope, despite Blackford’s relationship with Sally back home. It almost felt to me a bit obligatory and predictable. Far better, and more consonant with Buckley’s values would have been an unconsummated relationship, albeit with some sexual tension thrown in. That would have been more interesting.

The shame of this is that it wasn’t needed. The build up to the election, the moral dilemma and the international ramifications are plenty to make this an interesting story. The bromance between Wintergren and Oakes is far more riveting than the romance.

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!