William F. Buckley Jr.(WFB) is iconic figure in my life. I will spare you the details (for more see here and here), but suffice it to say when a new WFB book comes out I rush to pick it up. Such was the case for Last Call for Blackford Oakes. It is fitting that as Buckley begins to pull back from some of his more famous activities (The Firing Line, public speaking, his boat, control of National Review, etc.) that he wrap up the series of spy novels centered around Blackford Oakes.
Despite my love of all things WFB, I have always been a fan of the type of spy novels Blackford Oakes was designed to counter: dark, gray, ambiguous; full of what conservatives would call moral equivalence. I used to read Le Carre, Deighton, et al voraciously. But this didn’t keep me from reading and enjoying Buckley’s spy novels.
The Blackford Oakes series is interesting because it sheds light on Buckley and his way of thinking; or perhaps more importantly his imagination. They are usually historical “what ifs” or “what might have beens.” Blackford Oakes is the dashing young American spy out to thwart the evil empire and its minions. The Americans are always the good guys and the Communists are always the bad guys. In his defense, Buckley’s bad guys are intelligent and believable, not simple caricatures. The books also include wry notes about National Review, key conservative politicians, and even Buckley himself. This is lively entertainment. They may not be his best work (Brothers No More is probably his strongest novel) but they are part of the larger Buckley phenomenon.
Those who have followed the series so far will likely enjoy this final volume (although Buckley hints that his assistant might “revive” the series). Picking up where he left off in A Very Private Plot, Last Call is set in the Reagan Era when Gorbachev is rolling out Perestroika and Glasnost and the US once again suspects a plot to assassinate the Russian Premiere. The aging Oakes is again sent to defuse the situation on orders of the President.
This time, however, the assassination plot is a false alarm. Instead Oakes finds himself embroiled in a personal battle with the legendary British traitor Kim Philby. Oakes travels to Russia under the cover of a book publisher promoting potential works for translation into Russian as part of a cultural exchange. His former partner, and CIA contact within the US mission, Guy Windels introduces him to Ursina Chadinov, a strikingly beautiful Moscow urologist. Oakes, lonely after the death of his wife, falls deeply for the enigmatic Russian and things get complicated.
It turns out that Chadinov’s best friend and former roommate is married to “Andrei Fyodorovich Martins” who turns out to by Philby. Thanks to Oakes’s sloppy cover Philby is able make Oakes and strike back at him through Chadinov. Philby’s ugly taunting sets up a personal battle between the two aging super spies. It all builds to a climatic conclusion worthy of the book’s title.
After a slow start, Last Call settles into a suspenseful and emotional battle of wits and intrigue. Throw in glimpses of characters as diverse as Ronald Reagan, Gary Trudeau, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Graham Greene and you have another Buckley romp/thriller. This isn’t literary fiction by any stretch of the imagination, but it is entertaining. Buckley fans will be sure to pick up Last Call for Blackford Oakes to add to the collection, and perhaps to wax nostalgic as the WFB era seems to wind down, but those looking for some light summer reading might want to check this one out as well.