In the 1954 of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s novel (similar but not identical to the 1954 of history, as the author notes in an engaging afterward), Lavrenty Beria, the feared head of the Soviet secret police, is plotting to displace Georgy Malenkov as Joseph Stalin’s successor. Buckley treats this struggle with his customary elan, keeping his portraits of the Soviet leaders just short of caricature.
Even more intriguing is the other of the novel’s two converging plot lines, based on a little-known historical incident that could have changed the course of the Cold War. In 1954, the United States and Great Britain staged a top-secret commando operation in Albania. The immediate goal was to lead Albanian partisans in overthrowing the brutal Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha; the long-range goal was to destabilize the Eastern Bloc, spurring similar uprisings throughout the region.
The Albanian mission failed--doomed from the start, many believe,by Soviet penetration of British intelligence. In this fictional account, the Soviet mole is not an intelligence officer but rather a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Sir Alistair Fleetwood, one of Buckley’s most interesting creations. The brilliant, arrogant, narcissistic Fleetwood, unlike such real-life counterparts as Kim Philby and Sir Anthony Blunt, gets his just deserts.
All the familiar elements of the Blackford Oakes books are here: the charm of the insubordinate hero (offstage in this adventure more than is usual), the amusing cameos of historical personages, the playful connoisseurship (“The braised chicken and petits pois were fine, the claret excellent, the mille-feuilles sensational”), the convincing details of procedure and gadgetry, and, above all, the inimitable Buckley style (“At twenty-eight he wasn’t yet willing to defer any presumptive physical preeminence in any group”). Neither longtime fans or recent converts will be disappointed.