The Story of Henri Tod
The artistic temperament is not usually considered to be a particularly disciplined one, but when William F. Buckley, Jr., puts on his novelist’s cap he is ordered indeed. Every two years, amid other obligations as editor, columnist, television personality, Conservative guru, and yachtsman, Buckley produces a spy story. He began in 1976 with Saving the Queen, then followed Stained Glass (1978), Who’s on First (1980), Marco Polo, If You Can (1982), and now the present work, The Story of Henri Tod.
With this fifth novel, certain patterns and devices become apparent. It is clear that Buckley prefers to present his fictional hero and his adventures against the backdrop of recent moments of political crisis. Saving the Queen has as its background the attempts of the Soviets to acquire, in the early 1950’s, the requisite knowledge to produce the H-bomb. Who’s on First is set against the race for space and the Hungarian Revolution in the mid-1950’s, while Marco Polo, If You Can is Buckley’s rewriting of the incident in 1960 in which a U-2 pilot crash-landed in the Soviet Union. The present work, finally, is concerned with the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1960. Only Stained Glass does not have as its background any specific high point of East-West relations; even so, it does take place against a background of West German politics in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.
It will be observed that what these historical events share is that they are commonly regarded as “defeats” of the West by the Russians and their allies. There is a common theme here, and Buckley plays it for all it is worth: The West, and specifically the United States, has been guilty of cowardice and a failure of will for not standing up to the Russians—if necessary, with force. This theme is reinforced in the present work, because CIA agent Blackford Oakes has just come to his new assignment—to find out what Nikita Khrushchev plans to do in Berlin and when—from some sort of unspecified involvement in the events of the Bay of Pigs. In his series of novels, Buckley emphasizes the theme of betrayal; the suggestion is clear that the United States has betrayed its values and even Western civilization, just as governments betray their operatives and as individuals betray their countries, their friends, and their comrades. Oakes himself is frequently forced into situations of conflicting loyalties where he must make choices which can easily look like betrayals.
This setting of stories against well-known historical events is both an advantage and a disadvantage for an author. It is an advantage to know what happened ahead of time so that one can make one’s own plot fit the events, but it can be a disadvantage in that suspense is lost, because the average reader probably already knows, for example, that the Berlin Wall was erected and that the Western Allies did not choose to make an issue of the event. In a similar manner, there are advantages and disadvantages in sprinkling one’s novels with real people (Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, John Foster Dulles, Dean Acheson, and others). With this technique, one appeals to the general curiosity about the famous and acquires a certain amount of instant believability while, at the same time perhaps, confusing the reader concerning the actual line between fact and fancy. In The Story of Henri Tod, for example, Buckley provides several interior monologues by President Kennedy. They certainly look and feel as though they might well be the real thing (which is an effect that a good novelist strives to achieve), but there is presumably no documentary authority behind them.
Spy novels by William Buckley, then, present certain problems for the reader and reviewer which are not found in dealing with the works of novelists who are not public figures associated with specific social and political philosophies. Certainly, a spy novel by Buckley is bound to attract attention regardless of its innate quality. A novel by Buckley is more noticeable, though not necessarily more notable. Given that Buckley’s hero, Blackford Oakes, is born into well-to-do Establishment circumstances, is a veteran of World War II and a Yale graduate recruited by the CIA, and is possessed of traditional conservative and patriotic views, the reader should not be surprised to discover the same pattern in the life and career of the author. Because of Buckley’s connections with influential political and social personages, one continually wonders whether Buckley is creating fiction or, perhaps, revealing the real inside story. Such concerns,...
(The entire section is 1919 words.)