William F. Buckley, Jr., writer, conservative political commentator, and editor of the National Review, has expanded his repertoire in recent years to include the writing of political thrillers. His Blackford Oakes novels, of which Mongoose, R.I.P. is the eighth, follow the life and exploits of a dashing, urbane CIA agent engaged in espionage activities during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The most recent entry in the series unfolds during the final months of the Kennedy Administration, culminating in the president’s assassination, the last act of a complicated drama in which Oakes is a major player.
In Mongoose, R.I.P., Buckley attempts a difficult narrative task, offering a storyline based partly on historical events, the outcome of which is already well known. The central premise of the book is the well-documented attempts by the CIA to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, efforts apparently undertaken at the behest of John F. and Robert F. Kennedy. In Buckley’s book, Blackford Oakes is a key figure in one of several plots against Castro, all of which, as the reader knows, are doomed to failure. Yet unlike Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1979), which manages to create an atmosphere of suspense throughout its story of an intrigue against Charles de Gaulle, Buckley’s novel never grips the imagination with the possibility that—despite well-known history—the plan might somehow succeed.
The effectiveness of an espionage thriller depends, by its very nature, on sustaining an element of suspense throughout its action, and in this requirement Mongoose, R.I.P. is only partly successful. The suspense here lies entirely in how the plot will eventually fail and is limited to a few concentrated moments in the story, because of the extremely complicated web Buckley weaves. His plot threads include not only the assassination scheme involving Oakes and a highly placed Cuban official but also backup plots involving Castro’s beautiful mistress, who plans to poison him, and a rubber diving suit—a gift from the American State Department—lined by the CIA with a toxic substance. In addition, Castro is plotting his own revenge against the Kennedys, whom he knows to be behind the attempts on his life, with the help of a nuclear missile secretly left behind by the Soviets in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Finally, Oakes is caught up in a personal crisis centering on his long relationship with the lovely Sally Partridge.
The juggling of numerous plots and subplots can be highly effective in building tension, and there are passages in the book’s latter portions, as the story moves toward the fateful hour of Kennedy’s death in Dallas, which generate suspense over the playing out of Castro’s plan to fire his missile. What Buckley never manages to achieve, however, is the sense of urgency which leaves the reader torn between the drama of one story and the desire to return to the unfolding action of another. The book is interesting but not compelling, a crucial point which keeps it from joining the ranks of first-rate political thrillers and espionage novels such as those of Robert Ludlum or John le Carré.
Where Mongoose, R.I.P. does succeed in capturing the imagination, however, is in its blending of fact, fiction, and tantalizing speculation. Buckley is careful to state in his afterword that the book is a work of fiction, and he goes on to provide a list of the verifiable historical events which he has incorporated into his story. These include the existence of Operation Mongoose—the CIA’s blanket term for their attempts on Castro’s life—and the three plots it generated which are presented in the book, as well as the allegations by several Cuban refugees that one or more missiles were secretly left behind by the Soviets. Using these facts as a starting point, Buckley creates a fictionalized version of how events might have unfolded, adding characters and twists of his own that often hover well within the realm of the possible. Guessing at just how much of the story might have actually taken place or at how close Buckley has come to the truth in his reasons for real characters’ actions adds substantially to one’s enjoyment of the book as the line between history and art is skillfully blurred for dramatic effect.
One of the most intriguing of these fine lines is the degree of Castro’s involvement in the Kennedy assassination. Avoiding a headlong plunge into the murky world of conspiracy theories, Buckley carefully plants a seed of doubt and then leaves the question unanswered, offering only the suggestion that the Cuban government had been in contact with Lee Harvey Oswald and had officially refused him any cooperation. Castro plans to fire the Soviet missile at Dallas if Oswald’s attempt fails, yet he orders it destroyed before receiving confirmation that the shooting has been fatal. Is this intuition (an uncanny trait of Castro, according to the book), overconfidence, or an indication that he has taken measures to ensure that Oswald’s plan will succeed? The answer is left up to the reader.
Perhaps Buckley’s boldest ploy is his use of Castro and both Kennedys as participatory characters in his story. Of the three, Castro is given...
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