Probably best known as the best-known conservative author in the United States, William F. Buckley, Jr., continues to be both versatile and prolific. High Jinx is the seventh Blackford Oakes novel he has produced in ten years, in addition to his activities as editor, columnist, television host, and yachtsman. Buckley has even published Overdrive (1983), a journal of his febrile activities during the course of a week that testifies to just how busy he has been being busy. His best-selling novels have enlarged his intellectual influence into popularity.
Like its predecessors in the Blackford Oakes series, Saving the Queen (1976), Stained Glass (1978), Who’s on First (1980), Marco Polo, If You Can (1982), The Story of Henri Tod (1984), and See You Later Alligator (1985), High Jinx belongs as much to the genre of political-historical fiction as to that of the spy novel. Indeed, much of the pleasure in reading the Blackford Oakes novels comes from their dramatic exploration of the possibilities in recent history.
In High Jinx, the interplay between fact and fiction is particularly provocative—and timely, because the novel’s donnée is based on one of the best-kept secrets of the Cold War: a joint British-American operation in Albania, conducted between 1949 and 1953, designed to overthrow the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha and destabilize the entire Soviet Bloc. This ill-fated plan, sabotaged by Soviet mole Kim Philby and by sheer incompetence, was fully revealed for the first time in Nicholas Bethell’s book Betrayed (1985; first published in Great Britain as The Great Betrayal).
In High Jinx, too, Buckley again offers deft and amusing portraits of public figures—Dwight David Eisenhower, John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, and Georgi Maximilianovich Malenkov are given plausible dialogue and tantalizing roles in the plot—and, as in the other Oakes books and as with Alfred Hitchcock’s brief cameo appearances within his own films, reference is even made to the name William F. Buckley, Jr., when Eisenhower’s national security adviser happens to mention the author’s early work McCarthy and His Enemies (1954).
Early in his career, Buckley himself worked for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and he has had the confidence of important government officials. Hence much of High Jinx seems to bear the authority of an insider’s version of major international developments. Yet Buckley slyly reminds his reader that, while High Jinx is no idle fabrication, it is a work of fiction. The queen of England in his rendition of 1954 is named Caroline, not Elizabeth, and her prime minister is Anthony Brogan, not Winston Churchill or even his successor, Anthony Eden. In a statement that he appends to the completed narrative, Buckley also confesses to a deliberate inaccuracy in his chronology.
Buckley also chides two critics of See You Later Alligator for complaining that Blackford Oakes was not interesting enough. “I find him fascinating” is Buckley’s final comment. Given the fact that he has commissioned him for espionage duty seven times, the author’s attraction to his own protagonist is not surprising. Oakes is about the same age as Buckley was in 1954, and he shares his political views and his background at an English public school, Yale University, and the CIA. Oakes is irresistibly handsome, while Buckley is certainly witty.
High Jinx begins on a military base somewhere in England where Oakes, just back from Germany, is assigned to help train a special commando group composed of British, American, and Albanian volunteers. They are preparing for Operation Tirana, a top-secret mission to depose the Marxist regime in Albania and replace it with one more sympathetic to the Western alliance. The book invites the reader to speculate on turning points in history: What if, at an early stage in the Cold War, one nation in the Soviet Bloc had chosen to defect? The novel suggests that the loss of Albania as a fiefdom would have constituted a serious, consequential blow to Kremlin prestige and that the world of 1986 would be a better place for it. It is hard, however, to conceive of installing democracy in the xenophobic rural state that for more than thirty years has not only been a scourge of the West but a pain in the Warsaw Pact’s Balkan flank as well. Even without the intrusion of the CIA and MI5, Albania has been almost as hostile to Moscow as it has to Washington.
Like its real-life prototype (from which, however, it differs considerably in detail), Operation Tirana is an utter failure: All forty-one of the commandos are reportedly intercepted immediately on arrival in Albania and are presumably executed. A reasonable assumption is that the local authorities were waiting for them, that they had been tipped off with exact details of the secret mission. Much of the novel...
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