Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

It’s been longer than I thought since I’ve read a Blackford Oakes novel. Stuff has happened in Blackie’s life that I wasn’t aware of, and I fear some of the information I gained in Last Call for Blackford Oakes will take away some of the suspense when I read the ones I’ve missed.

On the other hand, I’ll probably forget.

I wrote a few days back that the late William F. Buckley’s novels are a quiet pleasure for me. The Oakes books are my favorites in that group. It’s nice to read about a spy who knows which side he’s on, and isn’t tortured by doubts about whether democracy or a police state are superior systems. And instead of shadowy puppetmasters in darkened rooms, Oakes’ bosses are the actual, historical people who ran the CIA. A number of other historical figures also make appearances.

Chief among these are the British defector Kim Philby, about whose character Buckley (and Oakes) is/are in no doubt. There is no romance in Buckley’s portrait of Philby.

In this final book of the series, Oakes is a senior agent, something of a legend in the CIA. In the first chapter, in December, 1987, he’s called in to meet with President Ronald Reagan. There are rumors of an attempt to assassinate Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev, and Reagan wants Oakes to look into it.

In Russia, he meets Ursina Chadinov, a beautiful Russian urologist (the perfect mate, Buckley might have said, for an aging hero). In the course of his operations, Oakes asks her out to dinner, and they are mutually smitten. A recent widower, he is delighted when she informs him that she’s pregnant with his child, and they make plans to be married and to move her to America.

But he has to make a quick trip home. While he’s gone, Ursina makes some politically dangerous statements, and Kim Philby, an acquaintance of hers, takes the opportunity to strike both at her and at Oakes, an old enemy.

Oakes returns to Russia, ostensibly to assist in the defection of a scientist, but actually to carry out a personal mission.

In my criticism of Buckley’s Nuremberg book, I complained that the characters seemed to lack passion. That’s not a problem in Last Call. Buckley’s spare, cool diction only makes Oakes’ anguish and resolution stand out in stronger relief.

As a fanatic on character, I’d have preferred a more rounded portrait of Philby. In this book he seems to destroy people merely for the pleasure of it, as if he loved evil for its own sake. I enjoy hating Philby as much as anyone, but nobody commits evil for evil’s sake (except some species of Satanists, I think). Communists generally commit their crimes out of a sense of the greater good—killing off this village or that class of people for the sake of a better, brighter tomorrow. Buckley could have described that here. Perhaps he felt he’d performed that exercise so many times that it’s redundant, and that leftist apologists have given Philby’s side of the story far more print than it deserves.

That’s a small quibble. I enjoyed the book and learned from it, and I recommend it.

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