Last Call for Blackford Oakes

Last Call for Blackford Oakes

3.0 1
by William F. Buckley Jr.

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More than twenty years ago William F. Buckley Jr. launched the dashing character of Blackford Oakes like a missile over the literary landscape. This newly minted CIA agent-brainy, bold, and complex-began his career by saving the queen of England and quickly took his place in the pantheon of master spies drawn up by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carr


More than twenty years ago William F. Buckley Jr. launched the dashing character of Blackford Oakes like a missile over the literary landscape. This newly minted CIA agent-brainy, bold, and complex-began his career by saving the queen of England and quickly took his place in the pantheon of master spies drawn up by Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré.

Against the backdrop of sinister Cold War intrigue, in this, his eleventh outing, Oakes crosses paths-and swords-with Kim Philby, perhaps the highest-ranking in the parade of defectors to the Soviet Union. Oakes is now himself a master spy, working outside of the agency and around agency rules. His romance with an able and worldly Soviet doctor provides consolation for the death of his beloved Sally. But after his return to Washington, he receives dismaying news. It is inevitable that the great Soviet spy and the renowned American agent will meet again-this time with deadly consequences.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A consistently engaging piece of cloak-and-daggitude . . . [that] again validates Buckley's considerable fiction skills." -THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW

"Buckley's main charm as a novelist, besides the wit, is his easy familiarity with the political and journalistic heavyweights he inserts into his fiction."-LOS ANGELES TIMES

Charlie Rubin
[Last Call] has a soul. And its elaborate canvas almost requires you to savor the overall achievements of the Oakes series, which, at its best, evokes John O'Hara in its precise sense of place amid simmering class hierarchies. For Buckley that means depicting a specialized elite and battle-ready corporate class: the international C.I.A. community of the 1950's to the 80's, with its disorders, fragile commitments, secret victories, self-righteousness and, occasionally, honor.
— The New York Times
I thoroughly enjoyed Last Call for Blackford Oakes (Harcourt, $25), William F. Buckley Jr.'s latest ex-cursion into the difficult world of espionage. And this is arguably his best in the Oakes series. (Blackford Oakes is America's best secret agent.) This tale recounts some real and some extremely fictional situations in which his brilliant character finds himself. One such example is a peace conference, hosted by the Soviets, to which many rather dubious characters.
—Caspar Weinberger
Publishers Weekly
Master spy Blackford Oakes hies to Russia to thwart yet another assassination plot against Soviet Communist Party chief Mikhail Gorbachev in Buckley's 11th Cold War intrigue starring the aging but still intrepid CIA agent. Back in the U.S.S.R., he's introduced to attractive, 40-year-old Moscow urologist Ursina Chadinov by his former partner Gus Windels, a CIA agent-cum-public affairs officer with the United States diplomatic legation. Immediately smitten by Ursina, Oakes asks her to marry him, but their romance takes a backseat once Oakes encounters Andrei Fyodorovich Martins, aka his old nemesis, spy and defector Kim Philby. The plot to assassinate Gorbachev soon resolves itself, shifting the suspense to the battle between the two master spies. The struggle quickly goes awry for Oakes, who must then make tough, life-altering decisions. As always, Buckley imparts erudite sidebars about American history, literature and his famous acquaintances as he spins a lively, entertaining tale. Readers with a longstanding attachment to Blackford Oakes will be saddened by the novel's culmination, telegraphed by the title, but Buckley hints in the acknowledgments that the spy may "rise again" under the supervision of his researcher for this book, Jaime Sneider. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Blackford Oakes is back, and this time he's wrestling with Kim Philby. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In his glasnost-era curtain call, Blackford Oakes comes off not so much world-weary as simply weary. The opening of this 11th outing finds Oakes (A Very Private Plot) in the Oval Office circa 1987, asking President Reagan to give him the okay to go snooping around Moscow. Oakes thinks there might be an attempt on Gorbachev's life, something the U.S. wants to scupper in the interest of keeping a moderate in the Kremlin. Once he's on the other side of the Iron Curtain, it's a pretty sedate affair, with Oakes getting a lot of his intel from Gus Windels, the Ukrainian-born CIA operative who poses as his son when they travel together, and sparking up a romance with the brainy and much younger Russian doctor Ursina Chadinov. The plot on Gorbachev doesn't amount to much, which leaves plenty of time for Oakes and Chadinov to verbally spar over dinner and for Buckley to lob some muted jabs at misplaced Cold War-era Western liberal sympathies for the Soviet regime. Things pick up a bit when legendary Soviet double agent Kim Philby (one of several real-life people who pop up now and again) enters the picture and smells something fishy about Oakes's cover story, setting up the inevitable showdown. Buckley clearly wants to be considered in the ranks of great literary spymasters; if he didn't, he wouldn't invoke Our Man in Havana so incessantly, even including an incredible scene where Reagan rhapsodizes about the book we're reading. But the comparison with Greene essentially ends at their shared Catholicism. While it's refreshing to read spy fiction that doesn't feel the need to end every chapter with a sniper's bullet or a car bomb, the author's failure to plumb much emotional or psychological depthleaves a great void. A muted ending to a less-than-thrilling spy's career.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
Publication date:
Blackford Oakes Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.82(d)

Read an Excerpt

Ronald Reagan, at ease with himself as ever, satisfied himself yet again on summoning the memory of his dealings with Blackford Oakes in October 1986. He had done the right thing. But now, December 1987, Oakes had put in for another meeting with the president.

Their 1986 meeting had had to do with a plot to assassinate Gorbachev. A group of young Russians, weary and demoralized by the brutal Soviet war against Afghanistan, had planned to kill the Communist leader. Oakes, veteran CIA agent, was in secret and unshared touch with a Soviet defector he had long experienced as antagonist, but who was now a hidden ally.

And so Reagan had had to ponder the agonizing question: Is it the business of the United States to get in the way of a plot by native Russians trying to get rid of Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, and dictator?

Reagan had inclined, at first, to do nothing-let the Russians look after their own affairs. Gorbachev was certainly an improvement on his predecessors, true. Yet he was a blooded successor to a line of tyrants that had begun in 1917 with Lenin, followed by Stalin, a thirty-year curse. And then there had been Bulganin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev, another thirty years among them, followed by Andropov and Chernenko ("elderly guys," Reagan mused, "-about my own age"). They didn't serve for very long, but they did carry on the bloody Afghan war launched by Brezhnev. A war that Gorbachev, soon after his selection as general secretary, vowed to fight to the end.

Should President Reagan do nothing? Say nothing-when he got word through Oakes that an assassination had been plotted?

Reagan sat on the intelligence. While weighing the question of intervention, he reminded himself that the young conspirators were perfecting their plot. What finally influenced him had been the summit at Reykjavik. This was his second meeting with Gorbachev, and this time he sensed that Gorbachev was different enough from other Soviet leaders to be worth going to undiplomatic lengths to protect. So he called Oakes in and told him to intervene. To abort the assassination. If necessary, even if it meant exposing the ring of youthful plotters. Yes-if necessary-even if it meant exposing the deeply hidden Soviet asset, the clandestine defector who had tipped off Blackford Oakes.

That was fourteen months ago, but Blackford vividly recalled the day the president gave him the order. Reagan had come right to the point.

He told Oakes-his mouth slightly contracted, as was habitual when Reagan was spitting out instructions-that the plot was to be suppressed. Having made the critical decision, Reagan wanted the whole thing to go away. The very last thing he wished ever to be reminded of was that he had once given orders to betray a band of young Russian patriots. After all, weren't these people to be likened to the July 20th plotters against Adolf Hitler? Likened to, well, the Romans who finally did away with Caligula? He stopped himself from deliberating further along such lines. Sic semper tyrannis! was good stuff, but just not right in dealing with someone who, with the flick of a finger, could dispatch nuclear bombs that would destroy lives by the tens of millions.

Seven weeks after his fateful meeting with Oakes, Reagan received word. "The affair" had been "taken care of." That could only mean that the young Russian plotters had been frustrated, presumably imprisoned, or executed. Gorbachev was safe on his throne. There had been a moment of high anxiety for Reagan, some while later, when he met with Gorbachev. The premier was in Washington on a state visit, and sat now with his host in the Oval Office, alone except for the two interpreters.

Gorbachev suddenly turned in his chair. He looked Reagan straight in the face. Had the president known anything about the plot of last October to kill him? he asked.

Reagan was eternally grateful for his histrionic training. "Mikhail," he said, his face redolent of sincerity, "let me give you my personal and most solemn word that no American official was in any way involved in any attempt on your life." Reagan's answer was formally correct. Reagan had not connived, and on deliberation would not have connived, even passively, in any attempted assassination.

Gorbachev held his gaze on Reagan, waited a moment, and then nodded, moving on to another subject. He had heard from the president's own lips what he wanted, and needed, to hear.

But now, in December 1987, would the subject of assassination come up again? Oakes had invoked the oral code over the phone with the critically situated Kathy. "This is about Freckles." That meant there was extra-institutional urgency in the requested meeting. The president would see again the man in the Central Intelligence Agency whom he had dealt with before, and had trusted for some years.

The code was used sparingly, only three times during the Reagan years so far. It meant that Blackford needed to move outside the ambit of the director of the CIA, even when that had been Bill Casey, Reagan's closest security adviser until his death in May.

Kathy slotted him in for four forty-five that afternoon.

Neither party wanted routine clerical notice paid to their meeting. The usual approach to the Oval Office was therefore avoided. Kathy led Oakes into the Cabinet Room, and from there knocked on the side door of the Oval Office, bringing Oakes in. The president stayed at his desk and nodded with a friendly smile, pointing to the chair alongside.

"Sir, the business of last October, the plot against Premier Gorbachev-"

"Yes, yes. Why do we need to bring that up?"

"Because there's a fresh design on his life-we think. Solid enough to bring to your attention. It comes to us from a survivor of the business of last October. But this time we're not sure, not like last time. This time it's a real complicated business-"

"I don't want to hear about it." Reagan looked down at his desk, arched his eyebrows, and slowed down the tempo of the conversation. "Just do this: Do whatever you can to protect Gorbachev, do it one more time, abort, abort-"

The president winked and leaned back on his chair. "I had a reputation back in California: I was a moderate on the subject of abortion." His creases broke into a smile. "You know the one about the British serial killer who said he was actually astonished by his moderation? My reaction exactly!" He paused and his eyes went to the painting of George Washington. He said deliberately, "There's to be no moderation in anything you have to do to protect Gorbachev. And no reporting to me except as absolutely required."

"I won't report back anything in detail. It could all be just a bag of wind. But I think I ought to go over there and find out."

"What do you need from me? Airplane tickets? Come to think of it, Black, the White House has a pretty good travel agent. I guess it does. My plane is always there when I need it. So, what do you need from me?"

"I do need one thing, Mr. President. Back then, last October, I was still director of covert operations for the agency. Since then, I've had to . . . slow down, so I'm just an agent. But as former operations chief, the rules say I'm not allowed inside enemy territory. You'd have to waive that rule."

The president pulled open his top desk drawer but then slammed it shut again. "I've been sitting here for nearly seven years. The things they want me to write an executive order about! Now this."

"You don't have to write anything, sir. Just tell me it's okay-"

"Viva voce?" Reagan was visibly pleased to use an old term of the trade.

"Yes." Blackford nodded. "Viva voce."

"Why do they have that rule?"

"Because if an operations chief were captured, he'd have a lot of vital information."

"Which the enemy could get hold of through torture?"

"That's the idea."

"How would you keep that from happening in your case?"

"I'd take precautions. Sir."

Reagan paused. And then nodded.

"I'll pass your word on-if I have to," Blackford continued. "I'll book a flight through Zurich and enter the Soviet Union under cover. That will also make it harder for the bureaucrats in the CIA to remind me where I can't go."

"Okay, okay. You have my word on it. But don't get me crossed up with your director. He's a good man." The afternoon sun broke in through the south window. Reagan's arm reached back and he felt for the cord, bringing the shades down enough to neuter the sun's glare.

"I don't know how it's all going to end up with Gorbachev. You saw what he said on the seventieth anniversary of their revolution?" Reagan reached into his desk for the clipping. "What he said was"- Reagan's voice was detached now, at public-speaking level-"that-I'm quoting him-'In October 1917, we parted the old world, rejecting it once and for all. We are moving toward a new world, the world of Communism. We shall never turn off that road.' Maybe he needs a little prodding."

"Well, sir, we've got a defense budget of nearly three hundred billion. That's prodding, right?"

"Yes. That's one way to make our point about road signs. Cap Weinberger would like to hear it put that way. Well, he's secretary of defense, and secretaries of defense have a right to think that hundreds of billions on defense are a means of prodding people to do the right thing." He got up from his chair. "If you need to see me again"- he extended his hand-"call Kathy."

Copyright © 2005 by William F. Buckley Jr.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

Meet the Author

William F. Buckley Jr. is the founder of National Review and was the host of what was television's longest-running program, Firing Line. He was recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The author of thirteen other novels, including Spytime and Nuremberg: The Reckoning, he lives in Connecticut.

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