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William F. Buckley, Jr has been so prolific for so long and written in so many genres that it's unfortunately not hard to lose track of even some of his best books. Stained Glass, which won the American Book Award for Best Mystery, is the best of his Blackford Oakes mysteries--which at the time he was writing them were considered to be on a par with, though the political opposite of, John LeCarre's spy novels. A potential reader might be justifiably concerned that a book that was already a historical thriller -- set in 1952 -- would be terribly dated twenty five years later, but it is because Mr. Buckley was so right about the Cold War and LeCarre so wrong that it actually reads quite well still.

Mr. Buckley used the series to comment on certain pivot points in and key ideas about our confrontation with Communism. In this entry Oakes is sent to West Germany to monitor and possibly eliminate a troublesome young political leader, Count Alex Wintergrin, under cover of working on the restoration of a cathedral on the Count's estate. Wintergrin, who fled Nazi Germany and fought against Hitler, refuses to accept the post-War division of his nation:
He spoke quietly about the genuine idealism of the German people, who had become united less than a hundred years earlier, and now were sundered by a consortium of powers, one partner in which had designs on human liberty everywhere, while the other partner, fatigued by a war that had roused its people from a hemispheric torpor which they once thought of as a part of the American patrimony--an American right, so to speak--was confused now and disillusioned by the ambiguous results of so heroic an effort. The Americans saw a Europe largely enslaved by Allied victory--and unconcerned about Germany. No, never count on allies beyond a certain point, he said: only Germans can reshape their own destiny, Only Germans can come, would come, to the aid of their brothers in the East. Faced with such resolve, the Russians would necessarily yield; even as, eventually, the Nazis had yielded.
Therein we see the clarity of Mr. Buckley's vision, as opposed to the muddle of LeCarre. To LeCarre the West and the Communists were evenly matched, both militarily and morally. The stakes in his spy games are great for the players, but insignificant for the world, and therefore it would be better for all concerned if we just accepted the inevitability of the Soviets. Mr. Buckley, on the other hand, accurately perceived just how weak the Soviets were and what a moral abomination their system presented. The stakes in his novels could not be greater, but the frustration -- indeed, the tragedy -- is that the West refuses to play for them as hard as it should. In effect, LeCarre's novels are anti-spy because he didn't care who won the Cold War, while Mr. Buckley's were anti-spy because he knew spying was a paltry substitute for going ahead and winning the War. As Blackie Oakes reluctantly conspires at Wintergrin's doom, rather than helping him to triumph, we realize the real tragedy that good men trying to keep the " peace" visited upon the world.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A+)

  

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William Buckley, Jr. (2 books reviewed)
Thrillers
William Buckley, Jr. Links:

    -REVIEW ESSAY: Bill Buckley as Novelist: The Saga of Blackford Oakes (Richard Coulson, 02/09/10, First Principles)
    -REVIEW: of THE MEANING OF EVERYTHING: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary By Simon Winchester (William F. Buckley Jr, NY Times Book Review)

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