William F. Buckley, Jr., had been publishing books for twenty-five years by the time he came to write the Blackford Oakes novels. The story goes that he told his book editor he wanted to write something like a “Forsyth novel.” The editor thought Buckley planned a story akin to John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (1922), perhaps featuring Buckley’s colorful family. Buckley, however, was thinking of Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971), about a hired killer who agrees to assassinate French president Charles de Gaulle.
The book that Buckley produced—the first in the Blackford Oakes series—was Saving the Queen (1976), based in part on his own brief experience with the CIA in the early 1950’s during the Cold War period. The prevailing belief, articulated by novelists such as Graham Greene and John le Carré, was that espionage involved no morally worthy goals but was simply a sordid game or at best a means of livelihood. Buckley was disgusted with books and films that portrayed the CIA as morally reprehensible, with plots that suggested (as he described it with characteristic sarcasm) that “the evil spirit behind the killing . . . was the President of the United States or, to be really dramatic and reach all the way up, maybe even Ralph Nader.” So he “took a deep breath and further resolved that the good guys would be—the Americans.”
In Blackford Oakes, Buckley’s spy novels present what the author calls “the distinctively American male”: a hero who is intelligent but not pedantic, compassionate but not soft, a believer but not naïve, and a patriot but not a flag-waver. Blackford Oakes has much in common with his author as he is politically conservative but still very much the rebel. Buckley envisioned Oakes as a independent-minded American; he draws him as addressing his superiors with mutinous drollery and appreciating life’s luxuries but expressing his satisfaction in an artless Yankee manner. In High Jinx (1986), Buckley describes Oakes thus: “At twenty-eight he wasn’t yet willing to defer any presumptive physical preeminence in any group.” Fictional he may be, but Oakes is his own man and not his creator’s puppet.
The American virtues embodied by Oakes appear seriously threatened by the Soviets in the Cold War milieu of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Soviets invaded Hungary to put down a popular uprising; Fidel Castro came to power—and later set up a missile base—in Cuba, ninety miles from Florida; and the Soviet Union launched a satellite well ahead of the United States....
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Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. (Vol. 18)
Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. 1925–
Buckley, an American editor, political writer, novelist, and lecturer, is best known as conservativism's most eloquent spokesperson. He is the author of three witty espionage novels. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Stained Glass,] an elegant and engaging tale of East-West skulduggery in postwar Germany, genially observes all the conventions of the first-rate spy story and at the same time conducts a disturbing lesson in the unsavory realities of international politics.
Given to outlandish fantasies …, the author here advances a startling proposition: What if the Western Powers, the United States in particular, had resisted Soviet tyranny in East Germany during the scramble for influence in Europe that followed the Second World War? Now, of course, we will never know, but as the author re-creates the international climate of the early 1950s, the notion that history once in a great while presents an opportunity for right to prevail seems tantalizingly plausible, and the bungling of such a chance, maddeningly and momentously wasteful.
Stained Glass proceeds with the ample wit and intelligence that one by now takes for granted in Buckley. With a plot that finds the CIA collaborating with the KGB to assassinate the most prominent and influential anti-Communist in Europe, the novel—by turns playful, charming, poignant, wickedly satiric, and unabashedly partisan—stops short of the triumphantly unambiguous finale featured in routine thrillers. But then, if the author denies us the allegorical victory of the good guys over the bad, it is no doubt because his resonant idealism is tempered by an unblinking eye for things as they really are.
Jane Larkin Crain, "Books in Brief: 'Stained Glass'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 16, May 13, 1978, p. 39.
Americanism, Catholicism, the Red Menace, the idiocy of the liberals—that is what "Stained Glass" is all about. It is a tract, in black and white, full of post hoc conclusions. One thing, though. The breezy, uninhibited mind of the author always comes through.
Only Mr. Buckley could gleefully get in passing cracks about Adlai Stevenson, Alger Hiss, Charlie Chaplin, The New York Times editorial page. Only Mr. Buckley could pause to talk about "Parsifal" and Bach. Only Mr. Buckley could interrupt the action to quote from the Complete Works of Whittaker Chambers. Only Mr. Buckley could so have duplicated President Truman's salty language….
How about "Stained Glass" as a story? Well, it's fun. Mr. Buckley can write. There is plenty of action, some wit at the expense of thinkers the author does not particularly admire, some high-level shenanigans out of the White House and the Kremlin, and plenty of standard cut and thrust as the American and Communist agents clash swords. (p. 13)
Newgate Callendar, "Oakes to the Rescue," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 14, 1978, pp. 12-13, 26.
Stained Glass is more of a novel than a thriller, and it differs from the idols of its marketplace in some interesting ways. The first is in its sense of character. The second is in the correlative of its title. The third and most important difference is political. Stained Glass is squarely centered on a political issue, not a fantasy. It is worth reading and remembering because it is informed by strategy, and consists, as a novel, in the working out of a political possibility….
The subject is the unification of East and West Germany at a time when this might still have been attempted. The book has a short timetable; all of the action is dependent on the defeat of Konrad Adenauer by [Wintergrin,] a man prepared to take many more chances than der Alte—a man whom the United States has an acknowledged interest in removing before he becomes too serious an affront to the Soviet Union. The agon of the book doesn't concern the morality of his assassination, only its political wisdom. This is less cynical and more important than it sounds: we are assuming that Intelligence is not moral, and that this allows it to be accurate.
The great moments in Stained Glass occur in debate, as it becomes clear that the CIA has only political theory to offer against morality, and that such theory is incomplete without moral (and historical) knowledge….
The logic of the book's central event is held up against the mind and spirit of both Oakes [of the CIA] and Wintergrin—and against the metaphor of the title. Oakes...
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[Detective fiction has come so far as] to embrace political philosophy in the person of William F. Buckley Jr., that essayist, columnist, hymnodist of all things conservative, in his second thriller, Stained Glass. The first, Saving the Queen, was replete with ambiguity, irony, suspense—all those qualities we associate with Ambler, Greene, le Carre and company—and yet it put forward by example an argument about loyalty and guilt which was, to this reviewer, thoroughly convincing. Now Buckley advances his argument a further step, and onto more dangerous ground…. [In Stained Glass all] is ambiguity, all contributes to forwarding Buckley's analysis of a time when a truly bold West might have broken through the stranglehold Stalin had laid upon the Cold War, yet all is realistic in its conclusion that ultimately one must take action rather than wait for all of the facts, the options, the moral judgments to be in: "I don't believe the lesson to draw is that we must not act because, in acting, we may prove to be wrong." This is Dulles …, and while the action belongs to Oakes, the book belongs to Dulles.
Buckley has remarked that he would have liked to have called this chilling, compelling book "Detente." The title would have been apt, for while Stained Glass is about the past, its attitudes are for today. If history is philosophy teaching by example, this novel is a work of history, for it parallels those options that might well have been open to the West in the long ago years when, had boldness been our friend the world might today be vastly different—and when another form of boldness helped determine our present condition. One suspects Buckley intends to carry us, through the eyes of Oakes, from the seemingly clear perceptions of right and wrong of the Cold War years to our own muddy days, unraveling his ever more complex political views as he goes. At least I hope so, for Stained Glass is closer to the bone than le Carre has ever cut. (pp. 26-7)
Robin W. Winks, "Robin W. Winks on Mysteries: 'Stained Glass'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 178, No. 23, June 10, 1978, pp. 26-7.
[In Stained Glass] we have what can unblushingly be called a rattling good yarn, a firmly built and racy thriller, a perfect read for a wet English summer.
More than that, though. Buckley doesn't shirk the job of taking his fiction where his history leads him. We get a clear picture of the politics of that republican gadfly, his attitudes to the Cold War, to communism, to NATO etc. Interesting stuff and well, not to say expensively, served in a high class fict-o-mix.
Melvyn Bragg, "West and East," in Punch (© 1978 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 275, July 12, 1978, p. 70.∗
If one word can be used to describe William Buckley's new suspense novel [Stained Glass] it is "absorbing" rather than "exciting" but since the book's discriminating readership is almost pre-selected by the erudite fame of the author this can be only high recommendation.
The public has become conditioned, perhaps unfortunately, to a manner of speed writing in spy stories, which helps impel the action, so although the question should be asked: Can a spy story be too well written? its answer, in this case, becomes redundant. This is pure, high grade, artful, beautifully orotund Buckley.
One is never quite so lost in this story of a man chosen by the CIA to eliminate a West...
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William F. Buckley Jr. is almost alone in using genuine political mischief as a source of wit in the spy novel. He raises the sort of questions that only the most naïve and the most sophisticated political observers would dare to ask. He says, "What if—" and then proposes something that is as attractive as it is preposterous, something so nearly commonsensical that it throws the entire Western world into pandemonium.
He did this in "Stained Glass," his last spy novel, and now he is at it again in "Who's on First." It is 1956, and the earthshaking question is who will launch the first satellite, the United States or the Soviet Union? At stake is "the myth of bourgeois scientific invincibility."...
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["Who's on First," the] third of William F. Buckley Jr.'s espionage novels featuring Blackford Oakes, is set, like the two previous books, in the recent past, the period just before Sputnik. That gives the author the advantage of second sight. It also gives him a chance to indulge in some imaginary dialogue between famous figures….
As in all good espionage novels, there is thrust and counter-thrust. The Americans come up with an ingenious kidnap idea. The Russians, at first taken in, counter with a thrust of their own. So it goes. Toward the end there is a confrontation on the high seas…. (p. 7)
"Who's on First" has its share of barbed comment, mostly in the political area. Mr....
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I now understand enough about reviewing spy novels not to reveal the plot of this elegant and witty book set on the eve of the Sputnik launch. But it is safe to say that Who's on First skillfully combines a drama of high politics with one of high technology. We learn something about ozone fuels and transistors. We visit the Gulag and the chambers of the Washington elite. We meet a semi-alcoholic Navy captain who reads Forever Amber, and a boisterous and obscene rocket scientist straight from the Texas earth. We are privy to hilarious moments at Eisenhower Cabinet sessions, and contemplative moments with Dean Acheson and Allen Dulles. The Acheson-Dulles talks are rich and artful, and at the center...
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As an adventure novelist, William F. Buckley has done it again with Who's on First?. For journals of opinion, aristocratic politics tend to become a drag after a few decades. But they are just the thing in the boys' books Buckley has been writing. I like Blackford Oakes, his hero, partly because nobody I know has a name remotely reminiscent. I admired his exploits in Saving the Queen in which to preserve freedom and save NATO he was compelled, respectfully, to administer sexual solace to the Queen of England. I enjoyed Stained Glass even more because the reverberations of the ancien régime were even more enticing. Well, friends, Blackie is the same upper-class Yalie and loyal C.I.A. agent...
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Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. (Vol. 7)
Buckley, William F(rank), Jr. 1925–
Buckley, an American editor, author, and lecturer, is an eloquent and persuasive speaker and writer. He has taken a stand against such formidable forces as Yale University and Pope John XXIII. Buckley is a controversial spokesman for conservatism, often criticized for his views but also respected by his opponents. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
As the journalists who write about him, the liberals who debate him, and any number of others are forever discovering, there is a world of difference between the public William F. Buckley, Jr., with his polemics and his sometimes insufferable air of indomitability even in defeat; and the private William F. Buckley, Jr., who is one of the world's most gloriously engaging men, without a nasty word in his vocabulary.
As a result, Buckley tends to be portrayed as a paradoxical figure, each side of his personality making the other more difficult to understand. How, in God's name, the Left asks, can such a likable man hold such hateful politics? Some of the paradox disappears when you realize that it is precisely in God's name that Buckley does it. His views on America's role in the world are, simply, outside the realm of reason, which is to say he is one of those Catholics who take it on faith that if God had meant for the world to have Communists, He would have told us so. (As for purely domestic issues, Buckley isn't unreasonable at all. Wrong, maybe, but not unreasonable. He doesn't fit his caricature as a racist who is unsympathetic to the poor….)….
But still, there is an image problem. Buckley just does not behave appropriately for someone who wishes to be taken seriously as a Christian Crusader. His boisterous good humor, and pranks—such as the recent phony Pentagon papers—have led some of his nonadmirers to conclude that he is merely a dilettante and a showman, more concerned about having a good time than he is about even his own stated cause….
More important than the occasional obligatory polemic, [Cruising Speed] provides a rare public view of how and why Buckley's mind works the way it does; and more often than not it is a delightful thing, because for him cruising speed is just slightly less than the speed of sound. (p. 134)
Larry Dubois, in Harper's (copyright 1971 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the November, 1971 issue by special permission), November, 1971.
Execution Eve is more fun to read than to write about—if it were less amusing it would be easier to review. Actually, the book is serious. Yet the style is so incisive and astringent that the effect is cathartic as well as revealing. One feels as if one is participating in a sharp and witty, though far from frivolous, conversation from which it is difficult to tear oneself away….
[Buckley] manages to throw political realities into relief without losing sight of moral imperatives and, in the process, as Francis Bacon put it: "to excite the judgment briefly rather than to inform it tediously."…
He loves what he writes about, and makes you temporarily love anything he loves. (p. 1182)
Marvelously articulate, he surely cannot be charged with aposiopesis. Yet I sometimes think that beneath the columnist, painter, harpsichordist, editor, etc. there is a philosopher clamoring to be let out. But then Buckley might feel as Oliver Edwards did: "I have tried in my time to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness was always breaking in." It does, however mournful the occasion, however gloomy the prospect. Indeed, Buckley has re-elevated the art of eulogy to the high standard from which it had long ago fallen. So much so, that I am firmly resolved to leave this world before he does, for his eulogy is bound to be much better than mine. (p. 1184)
Ernest van den Haag, "Cheerfulness Is Always Breaking In," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1975; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), October 24, 1975, pp. 1182, 1184.
["Saving The Queen"] is rather unthrilling, seldom boring but seldom taut with tension. It is smartly plotted, witty (of course), sharply detailed, an agreeable if not compelling romp. Buckley originally subtitled the book "An Entertainment," and if you greet his modest appraisal with equally modest expectations, the book is a modest success. However, I must confess that spy/mystery/detective novels give me as much pleasure as back issues of Redbook, wildlife documentaries, essays by Benjamin DeMott, Arpino ballets, Gene Shalit in the Critics' Corner … pretty low on my pleasure scale. I don't even like Raymond Chandler. So even if it achieved its Platonic ideal, "Saving the Queen" would for me never be more than a glittery trifle.
Where this novel differs from the Chandler-inspired spy novels is in the moral world the hero inhabits. The protagonist of "Saving the Queen" is not an existential shuffler, doing his dirty work out of some opaque moral imperative, but an agent with a clearly defined assignment and a clear sense of the enemy. "That's the one intellectually interesting aspect of the whole enterprise," Buckley said. "Can one write a plausible novel which is pro-CIA." Pro-CIA novels hardly constitute a thriving genre, a datum not lost on the author. (pp. 58-9)
Mr. Buckley's forensic skills are better served in "U.N. Journal," a chronicle published by Putnam earlier this year of his tour of duty as a delegate to the United Nations. It's his most fully achieved work, the one in which his keen observant eye best serves his moral concerns….
It's no small achievement that after years of column writing, Buckley has kept his idiosyncratic voice, but the voice has lost resonance (in his worst moments he seems to have lost it to a Dictaphone machine). While terminal arthritic-fingers-on-the-typewriter lethargy has claimed many of his colleagues, Buckley's energy is still unflagging; but the intense concentration which could have made him a great writer, a conservative Mencken, seems beyond his will. (p. 59)
James Wolcott, "The CIA Wins (Again? At Last?) in Bill Buckley's Sexpionage," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1975), December 8, 1975, pp. 58-9.
Buckley's spy thriller [Saving the Queen] is set in the early '50s, when Stalin was in the Kremlin, Joe McCarthy was "going after the fags" in the State Department and all was right with the cold war. Blackford Oakes, Yale '51, is pipelined by the old-boy network straight into the CIA. His assignment proves crucial to the survival of the West. Someone close to England's Queen Caroline is leaking American H-bomb secrets to the reds. With nary a false step, Oakes foils this villainous plot and gets as close to the Queen as is possible for a robust young conservative.
Buckley, Yale '50, is clearly half kidding. But the half that is not causes some problems. No discernible irony or worry leaven his political message—free world ends justify the means—or his fulsome adulation of the "beautiful" Oakes, "the man-boy American, loose, bright, shining with desire and desirability." At times like these, not even Buckley's wittiest sesquipedalian sonorities can allay the impression that he is writing with his foot in his cheek. (p. 66)
Paul Gray, in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 5, 1976.
The one unbreakable rule is that the spy novel must entertain. When it becomes a propaganda vehicle or the boring formula of a lesser talent, it is doomed to [caricature]. (p. 15)
It will surprise absolutely no one to learn that in Saving the Queen,… [Buckley] has seized the chance to grind his renowned conservative axe. This is his basic mistake, although he plots his tall tale quite creditably, and brings deus and machina to a comfortably improbable climax with panache. (pp. 14-15)
Buckley wants his light-hearted romp to do yeoman service as a hymn in praise of the CIA, and on this level it is as full of holes as a barrel of bagels. The Buckleyisms tucked slyly into the story are the sort, to borrow Fowler's old joke, up with which I will not put…. For it is hard to share Buckley's nostalgic admiration for a cocky teen-aged American who, briefly in an England already at war in 1941, flaunted his America First button and his hero-worship for Charles Lindbergh, "the great advocate of American peace." Out of acorns such as this mighty spooks don't grow. (p. 15)
Pearl K. Bell, in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 19, 1976.
Since the [appearance of Saving the Queen], the author [William F. Buckley, Jr.] has repeatedly been asked whether the novel is autobiographical. His answers have sometimes appeared evasive, although he readily admits to having served briefly as a deep cover agent in the CIA after leaving college. Asked if, like his hero, he was treated sadistically at a British public school, he has answered that no, while at school in England as a boy he was beloved, then as now, of everyone. Asked to reply to the charge that everyone in his novel speaks like himself, he has remarked that this is a weakness he has in common with Jane Austen. Criticized in the New York Times for a scene that "reads like the Hardy Boys at a brothel," he replied that, speaking for himself, he would be delighted to read a chapter depicting the behavior of the Hardy Boys at a brothel. Asked why his hero, however amusing, departs so abruptly from the stereotype of Greene, Le Carré, et al., the author observed that not all American spies wear dirty underwear, or toss and turn at night wondering whether maybe Stalin wasn't right after all. Asked whether he has in mind a plot for a future novel, he was—once again—evasive, admitting only that he had mused on the theme of a novel based on a great novelist who consumed his talent worrying about mundane affairs. (p. 169)
William F. Buckley, Jr., in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 20, 1976.
[Saving the Queen] has all the trappings of a spy thriller and much more—so much more that Mr Buckley cannot seem to make up his mind exactly what kind of a book he wants to write: another CIA exposé, a satire on Henry James's sensitive American in tradition-barnacled Europe, a literary novel or an adventure fantasy—for the book is all of these by turns….
Mr Buckley's baroque prose sits heavily on his narrative, slowing it to snail's pace, and his repeated anecdotes about Churchill, Stalin, Eisenhower, etc—while fascinating as historical gossip—distract the reader and allow what tension there is to ebb away. (p. 318)
Tony Aspler, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Tony Aspler), March 11, 1976.
[Saving the Queen is] an entertaining yarn, graced with a literate style, keen knowledge and a twinkling sense of humor. We follow [a young CIA] agent's painstaking training, travel with him to England, enjoy his detour to a brothel in Paris, learn the inside tracks of a secret operation and accompany him to the Royal Palace, where he establishes a personal relationship with the Queen.
The young American's attachment to the Queen of England is lively and scandalous, yet full of endearing moments. The author has found a mischievous, unique way of illustrating Royalty in most human terms….
Saving the Queen, inching its way to the top of the Best Seller list, has injected a touch of sophistication and a flavor of sly irony to the genre of political intrigue. Authors like John Le Carre and Len Deighton dwell on the bleak, pessimistic and treacherous life of the secret agent. Buckley manages to convey a sense of reality by interweaving real-life personalities and events with imaginary ones and keeps the proceedings whirling with fresh humor, wit and bite. (p. 219)
Amnon Kabatchnik, in Armchair Detective (copyright © 1976 by Allen J. Hubin), June, 1976.