William F. Buckley, Jr. Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 1060 words.)