Last Call for Blackford Oakes by William F. Buckley Jr.

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Last Call for Blackford Oakes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Last Call for Blackford Oakes is the final book in a Cold War spy series begun in 1975 as a response to the conspiracy premises of the film Three Days of the Condor (1975). William F. Buckley, Jr., wanted the lines between good and bad clearly drawn to confirm that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acted on the side of right for good ends against an unquestionably amoral empire, Stalinist and Soviet tyranny. Thus, where John le Carré, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, and other writers of Cold War conflicts delineate the murky morality of all modern spy organizations, East and West, with the individual an expendable pawn in a larger, amoral game, Buckley sticks to an older tradition of Western honor, loyalty, and patriotism.

In the first book in the series, the handsome, debonair Blackford Oakes, a bright and witty Yale graduate and daring former fighter pilot, saves the queen of England. In other volumes, he travels to Cold War hot spots such as Havana, East Germany, and the Gulf of Tonkin; flies a U-2 plane over Soviet territory; and restores broken church windows. While Oakes foils the plans of Fidel Castro during the Cuban Missile Crisis or plugs a security leak in the Eisenhower administration (turning the tables on the KGB in Marco Polo, If You Can, 1982), Buckley comments on national and international politics, always with a deeply conservative Republican twist.

As the last in the series, Last Call for Blackford Oakes echoes back to Oakes’s past exploits and past encounters, especially in High Jinx (1986) where the 1950’s exposure of Cambridge spies Sir Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, and Kim Philby sets the stage for Oakes’s present adventure. It also continues the tradition of being more concerned with ideological differences and the debate of ideas than with high adventure. Thus, dinner conversations and friendly cocktail party exchanges loom large as speakers consider the future of perestroika and glasnost.

Whether he is describing sailing, a secret high-tech telescope, or the intricate movements of a Bach concerto, author Buckley, who is himself a concert harpsichordist, a transatlantic sailor, a former CIA agent, and a political pundit, employs urbane diction that is both precise and erudite, reflecting the clarity of a careful technician but also the depth of education and style of a Yale graduate who continues to revel in the arts. The shift in point of view as a means to provide a well-rounded debate grows out of his experience on television’s Firing Line. His characters, in the main, are an elite set, well educated, financially comfortable, at home in the drawing room, and quite capablealthough sometimes ruthlessly so.

The novel is broken into three books. The longest, book 1 (chapters 1-28), establishes the background situation, finds Oakes investigating briefly in Moscow, and then switches focus to his autumn romance (he is seventy, she forty) and subsequent engagement to Dr. Ursina Chadinov, a beautiful and successful Russian urologist, despite looming political repercussions. Having foiled a 1986 plot on Mikhail Gorbachev’s life in A Very Private Plot (1993), Oakes seeks President Ronald Reagan’s permission to investigate rumors of a second such plot, as Reagan can override the stricture that prevents former CIA section heads from entering the foreign territory whose espionage security secrets they hold. His intelligence feedback comes from Gus Windels, the Ukrainian-born, Iowa-raised CIA operative who in 1986 had posed as his son as they traveled together in Russia.

In fact, it is Windels, not Oakes, who does most of the spying and detecting, tracking the plotters through his informant Galina, a prostitute who uses her unique position to exchange underground information between both sides. Through his meetings with Galina, Windels learns that the plot is being masterminded by Nikolai Dmitriev and General Leonid Baranov, both snubbed for government positions, and Ivan Pletnev, whose brother Viktor...

(The entire section is 1,590 words.)