Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Book Review: Saving the Queen, by William F. Buckley (1976)

Cover of Saving the Queen, by William F. Buckley, 1976.

The back cover of Saving the Queen: William F. Buckley in his limo with one of his Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. Talk about multitasking!
In the mid-1970’s, William F. Buckley decided that merely writing a newspaper column three times a week, hosting a weekly television show, and editing a biweekly magazine wasn’t quite enough frenetic activity for him, so he tried his hand at novel writing. Buckley spent two months every winter in Switzerland, and he figured that after skiing in the afternoon he should be able to bang out 1,500 words every day and thus by the end of his “vacation” have a draft of a novel. Since William F. Buckley seemed to have more energy than three people combined, this plan worked. Buckley’s first novel, Saving the Queen, was published in 1976, and it introduced the world to dashing CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Saving the Queen was a success, and Buckley would go on to pen 11 novels featuring Oakes. 

Saving the Queen is a decent enough potboiler, but it doesn’t have the tension of great thrillers. Blackford Oakes is just too ridiculously perfect to be very entertaining, and everything falls together much too easily for him. Oakes saves the fictional Queen Caroline of Great Britain, and sleeps with her, all without breaking a sweat. Saving the Queen takes place in 1952, and someone close to the Queen is leaking information about the hydrogen bomb to the Soviets. Oakes’s mission is to find out who the mole is, and he figures that out far too easily, since it’s the only person he meets that is close to the Queen. Oh, and the Queen readily tells Oakes who amongst her inner circle has a suspiciously high curiosity level about the hydrogen bomb. Well, that was easy!

Buckley admitted that he deliberately made Oakes a flawless character, saying in a 1985 interview, “I made Blackford Oakes such a shining perfection to irritate, infuriate the critics, and I scored!” (Conversations with William F. Buckley, p. 91) That’s all well and good, but it makes Oakes a little, well, boring. He never says or does the wrong thing, so we never actually get worried for Oakes. Some critics at the time charged that Oakes was nothing more than an idealized version of William F. Buckley himself, but I don’t think that’s true. Although there are some surface similarities between Oakes and Buckley, they are quite different people. Buckley, who was himself briefly a CIA agent, also deliberately puts the CIA in the best possible light, since it was Buckley’s contention that the CIA was on the side of good, and the Soviets were on the bad side. There are no shades of grey in this book, only black and white. Buckley was writing about the CIA during a rather thorny time in the history of the agency, as the Rockefeller Commission, led by then-Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, was taking an interest in the legality and morality of the CIA’s actions. Even though his novel was set in the past, Buckley felt he had to address the Rockefeller Commission, and he does so in a clunky prologue and epilogue. Despite Buckley’s attempts to put a heroic gloss on the CIA, I found Boris Bolgin, the Russian NKVD agent, to be the most interesting character in the book. Bolgin’s main goals in life are avoiding having to express any political opinions of his own, and to never have his name mentioned to Stalin. 

One problem I had with Saving the Queen is that all of the characters talk like William F. Buckley. While that means that everyone is fabulously intelligent and witty, with the vocabulary of an unabridged dictionary, it also means that the characters all sound the same, which makes the book a trifle dull.

Saving the Queen is a moderately entertaining thriller that I would recommend only to William F. Buckley fans or diehard Cold Warriors.

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