WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, JR. – Saving the Queen. Blackford Oakes #1. Doubleday, hardcover, 1976. Warner, paperback, 1977. Avon, paperback, 1981. Cumberland House, softcover, 2005.

   It is almost impossible to write about William F. Buckley and not mention politics, one of the leading Conservative voices of the Twentieth Century, political commentator, gadfly, and droll defender of his point of view. He was closely identified with Conservatism, founding two of it’s most important voices, the magazine National Review and the series Firing Line, but I would argue he found his true gift as a writer of fiction, droll, witty, fanciful, and playful fiction that took advantage of his sophistication and famous vocabulary.

   It can be argued today that his novels, both those about Blackford Oakes and the more mainstream ones, are more relevant than any of his political stances or achievements to the modern world, his brand of Conservatism largely dead and forgotten by all but a few, certainly no longer the mainstream voice of the movement it once was.

   For my tastes the highlight of his gift lay in his series of delightful spy novels featuring handsome Patrician Ivy League spy master Blackford “Blackie” Oakes, whose adventures filled eleven volumes, following the adventures of the CIA agent from 1950 until 1987 and Blackie’s final confrontation with British traitor Kim Philby (Last Call for Blackford Oakes).

   Granted it can be pointed out that the Oakes novels play fast and loose with history rewriting many of the most embarassing failures of the CIA as secret triumphs, thanks to Blackie’s untold version, but taken as the fun they are intended as rather than history it’s cheeky entertainment watching Buckley try to re cast the reality of Sputnik (Who’s On First?), the Hungarian Revolution (The Story of Henri Tod), Cuba (High Jinx), or Kim Philby (Last Call for Blackford Oakes), which he does with unflagging tongue in cheek humor while an endless parade of Presidents, spy masters, and diplomatic figures out of history glide through Buckley’s re=imagining of the Cold War, Allen Dulles, Dean Acheson, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, the Kennedy’s, and Ronald Reagan among them.

   That he personally knew most of those figures and had himself served in the CIA informs the books with something like the spirit of the far less political Ian Fleming, the British spy novelist he resembles in terms of storytelling gifts and audacity far more than a more sober Le Carre or cynical Deighton. For their obvious differences the Oakes books are very much the true American answer to Fleming and Bond.

   Saving the Queen opens in the wake of Watergate with the very real Rockefeller Commission looking more closely into the past activities of the CIA and Blackie Oakes due to testify. Over dinner with his friend Anthony Trust, a recurring character in the series, Blackie muses on just how much truth he dare tell the Committee about his first major assignment. To take the Fifth Amendment would mean the end of his career in the CIA.

   There was no comment. Harman, for one, knew nothing about the first assignment. Anthony knew more than he let on, but he didn’t know it all, by any means. And it would greatly have surprised Singer Callaway to discover that not even he, who had been intimately involved in the operation, knew exactly how far the young man had got in, in the course of saving the Queen.

   It is the Post War era and a young Blackford Oakes has been sent to London ostensibly to study the Post War British economy, and for Oakes a painful it’s a reminder of youthful encounter with the British Public School system that left him cynical and bitter. Much of the first third of the book is taken up with his being readied for the mission, briefed, and with flashbacks to his childhood experience.

   If there is a flaw in the book, it is these flashbacks to Oakes’ humiliation in the British Public School system. I can’t help thinking Harry Flashman would of given him the Tom Brown treatment and James Bond, who got kicked out of Eton, would have laughed in his face. I’m not sure Charles Dickens is really the best model for spy fiction.

   Of course there is more to his mission than that. CIA suspects the Russians have high level agents in the United Kingdom maybe even at Buckingham Palace in the court of the beautiful new Queen Caroline I.

   Saving the Queen is the most playful of the Oakes series with Buckley more relaxed here where he isn’t trying to rewrite actual history. In later books Blackie will find his conscience tested by his profession (Stained Glass) and his neck in much tighter nooses (The Story of Henri Tod), but here the adventure is spiced with just a hint of spy spoofery dressed up with Buckley’s considerable wit.

   His friendly enemy Economist John Kenneth Gailbraith was only partially ribbing him when he noted that in fiction Buckley had found his true place.

   Oakes and the beautiful English Queen, more Grace Kelly than Elizabeth, are physically attracted as Blackie begins to sort out the question of the possible Soviet agent at the heart of British royalty, and get his own back a bit over his unpleasant childhood experiences, all coming to a head in a duel at 10,000 feet between a Hunter-Hawker piloted by the Soviet agent and Blackie in an F86 Sabre.

   For all the spirit of Ian Fleming, Buckley is far less hedonistic than his British forerunner. Blackie can be a bit of a prude and it is hard at times to believe in him. Unlike Bond he has a steady girl friend he is usually faithful too and something of a life as an engineer. You can’t imagine him letting down his hair in Romany encampment or a Japanese bath like Bond or enjoying the sexy sound of his car’s exhaust, much less Bond’s exploits with women. Even when Blackie gets his hands dirty there is a sense hand sanitizer is nearby. Blackie is very much a paragon of Yale and Patrician birth, not an “elegant thug” like Bond kicked out of Eton for an unspecified scandal with a serving girl.

   Buckley has removed the Sex and Sadism from the Bond formula, retained the Snobbery, and added Wit and the sting of the political gadfly to create his own formula, Snobbery, Re Written History, and Satire.

   But he is charming company to spend an evening with delving in the backrooms and shadowy corners of the Cold War, imagining oneself an armchair insider in the back corridors of power, and when a relieved Blackie escapes testifying before Congress only to walk away whistling “God Save the Queen,” I think many of you will agree the trip was worth taking, and with varying results he managed to keep it up for eleven more books, with his best after this one probably Who’s On First?.