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 depth leaves a great void.
A muted ending to a less-than-thrilling spy’s career.