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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
For nearly 50 years, William F. Buckley Jr. has successfully pursued a number of concurrent careers: magazine editor, newspaper columnist, television personality, staunch (and vociferous) conservative ideologue. In the midst of all this, Buckley has also found time for a secondary career as a popular, if lightweight, novelist whose books reflect an obsessive fascination with the issues and events of the recent Cold War. His 1999 novel, The Redhunter, is a sympathetic portrayal of the life and times of Senator Joe McCarthy. His long-running Blackford Oakes series (Who's on First, Stained Glass, Saving the Queen concerns a Yale-educated CIA agent whose adventures take him to one after another of the Cold War's hot spots: Soviet Russia, Castro's Cuba, East and West Berlin, etc. Buckley's most recent novel, Spytime, once again examines that turbulent era through a fictionalized portrait of legendary spymaster James Jesus Angleton, long time Chief of Counterintelligence for the CIA.
Angleton (1917-87) was, for many years, one of the principal figures of the American intelligence community. Buckley's account of his long career begins during the waning days of World War II, when Angleton -- a novice agent for the Office of Strategic Services -- plays an unexpected role in the capture -- and subsequent execution -- of Benito Mussolini. With admirable economy, Buckley then sketches in the high points of Angleton's post-war career, a career which carries him into the ruling inner circle of the Central Intelligence Agency, and which eventually culminates in dismissal and disgrace in the radically altered political climate of the mid-1970s.
Buckley portrays Angleton as a dogged, diehard anti-Communist driven by the belief that Soviet agents have infiltrated -- and compromised -- the major Allied intelligence services. Spytime explores the roots of Angleton's belief by re-creating an era in which duplicity did, in fact, proliferate, in which a series of scandals -- most of them concerned with the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring -- rocked the West. The first of these scandals erupted in 1951, when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean -- Cambridge graduates who occupied sensitive positions within MI6, the Foreign branch of the British Secret Service -- were revealed as "moles": long-term, deep-penetration Russian agents. A number of other moles -- among them George Blake, Sir Anthony Blunt, and the charismatic traitor Kim Philby -- were subsequently uncovered. Much of Spytime concerns Angleton's attempts to discover whether Philby -- his longtime associate and sometime friend -- is a loyal English intelligence agent or a Communist spy.
The bulk of the action takes place in the early 1960s, a particularly eventful period in the history of the Cold War. Angleton's search for the truth about Philby is set against a backdrop of momentous historical events, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the building of the Berlin Wall. Buckley populates his crowded narrative with a gallery of the era's iconic figures: Allen Dulles, John and Robert Kennedy, Robert McNamara, William Colby, McGeorge Bundy, and the Russian defector Anatoliy Golitsyn, a former KGB agent who helped shape Angleton's belief in the prevalence of treason in the British and American governments.
Spytime is a detailed, authoritative account of a fascinating time, but it is not a perfect novel. In fact, for all his intelligence and vaunted command of the language, Buckley doesn't strike me as a natural-born novelist. Whenever it descends from the political to the personal, whenever it addresses such unruly topics as love, sex, and human relationships, Spytime stumbles and grows irredeemably stilted. But whenever Buckley turns his attention to his central subject -- the ideological underpinnings of the Cold War -- the novel relaxes and regains its footing. Spytime isn't for everyone, but it comes highly recommended to anyone with an interest in espionage, in contemporary history, and in the Realpolitik of an era that ended with the astonishing collapse of the Soviet Union, some 15 years ago. At its best, it re-creates the ambiance and anxieties of a world that has receded into history and brings that world to vivid, believable life. (Bill Sheehan)
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At the Foot of the Story Tree, has been published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).