William F. Buckley Jr. once mentioned in his Paris Review interview, the difficulties with which he is faced when he writes a historical fiction novel. When espionage fiction, already dependent on the variables of suspense and loyalty, has a conclusion that has been decided by the course of history, how does the writer achieve his suspense?
In Spytime, Buckley does this by driving the plot away from its most notable figure, the legendary founder of the U.S. counterintelligence unit of the CIA, James Jesus Angleton.
It is with Angleton that we begin, in September of the year 1974. The latter is retracing his lineage in an ominous diary recording (being that this is a rather large no-no in the world of high spying, the reader may make the hypothesis that Angleton is drunk), which shortly brings the reader to a central motif of the novel: The Fifth Man.
For those, like myself, who were born after the events of the Cold War, some explanation might be required. Starting in the late 1950’s, Angleton became increasingly convinced that the KGB was infiltrating the CIA by the means of double agents. Buckley was himself involved in matters of the CIA: he was all but commissioned by the organization to write the novel New Lies for Old in order to waylay to the public the argument that the KGB faked its collapse in order to give its enemies a false sense of victory.
As to these double agents, there are (for the majority of the novel) four: Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt, and Kim Philby, and yet, despite these four men’s statuses as either abroad or detained, the leakage of sensitive intelligence remains. What must be the variable is another double agent, Angleton’s Fifth Man.
Spoiler Alert: you won’t meet him, at least until the end of the novel. You will on the other hand meet and get to know the other four, particularly Philby, although Buckley does not dispense much character to any of the four, preferring to draw attention to Angleton and his later disciple, the gregarious, recent Yale graduate Tony Crespi.
Crespi is a bit of a hackneyed character in that he exemplifies less a person and more of a young man’s romanticized, espionage idealism. He’s smart (Yale graduate and a pluralinguist with English, Italian, Arabic, and a bit of French), good-looking, nationalistic, and a womanizer.
He also possesses an illustrious lineage; his father, in an anecdote recounted early by the witness Angleton, was the one who put the bullet in the back of Mussolini’s head.
Because of these more enticing qualities, it is to Crespi’s world that we are drawn. We retreat from Angleton’s study in 1974 to the year 1961, where the eager Crespi shows up in Angleton’s office ready to serve his country by any means necessary. Angleton takes him in, in part because he and the boy’s father once worked together to bring down Il Duce, and the boy is turned into a shrewd intelligence machine before being transported to American College in Beirut, Lebanon under the pretenses of being an American student of Arabic. Here he gathers intelligence on Philby, whom Angleton suspects of treachery (this being before the former’s defection to Moscow, in 1963), and begins a love affair with the beautiful Russian agent (later, double, and under the direction of Angleton) Gabriela Semenenko.
Spytime is sharp, to say the least. Buckley’s decision to veer away from Angleton and give young Crespi the spotlight, and to dip in and out of high political rendezvouses (President Kennedy following the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of Mussolini, etc.) gives the novel a vividness which couples well with the rather cold objectivity with which other events are treated.
Crespi’s relationship with Semenenko suffers unfortunately under the latter. Despite the young man’s insistence that he loves the Russian agent, Buckley’s writing does not allow for much sentiment, even in the tender moments: “Gabriela wept copiously and hugged him again and again until the lieutenant, finally, inserted his bayonet between them…When she left the door, she was weeping.”
Buckley’s work cannot be faulted for its ability to turn fact into thriller. His espionage shows an incredible talent to revitalize and renew history and in so doing, cause history itself to continually surprise.
Buckley, William F. Jr. Spytime. Florida: Harcourt, Inc. 2000. Print.