David Callan is a very reluctant spy who undertakes nasty jobs for a black ops unit of MI6 known only as ‘The Section.’ An exceptional marksman with a deep-rooted (and usually well-founded) distrust of authority, his often lethal assignments do little to assuage his malcontent. This was the first novel featuring the character, though he was already established on television as played by the late Edward Woodward, to whom this book is dedicated.
I offer the following review for the 2013 Book to Movie Challenge at the Doing Dewey blog – for links to other participants’ reviews, click here; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
“… your talents are so specialized. What can you do, after all? Use a gun, use your fists, open locks. Legally, you’re unskilled Callan.”
Callan learned his trade while in the army during the ‘Malayan Emergency’ where he twice rose to corporal before being busted down for insubordination. Realising he had a dangerous talent for violence, he decided civilian life as a locksmith was not for him and attempted a robbery that instead got him two years in Wormwood Scrubs prison … and eventually co-opted by the Intelligence services. His trouble is that he has a conscience and won’t just blindly follow orders, especially when someone is to be ‘eliminated.’ After a mental breakdown he is dismissed by his boss, officially known under the title ‘Hunter’, but six months later is offered the chance to rejoin the section.
“He has to die'”, said Hunter, “and you may be the man for the job.”
To prove his fitness Callan will have to kill Schneider, an arms dealer who just ‘happens’ to work down the hall from his new place of employment, proving once again what a cool and calculating fellow Hunter always is. The catch? Callan has to do it without any support – so, if caught, he would be completely on his own. As Hunter still isn’t sure about his recalcitrant spy, he also has his vaguely psychotic agent Meres, who replaced Callan in the section, to keep tabs on him. Meres, like Hunter, is from an upper-class background and Mitchell does a great job of lightly sketching in the characters based on their respective feelings of resentment (on Callan’s part) and jealousy (Meres’). When Callan learns that Schneider is under police observation he threatens to pull out but Meres is able to sort the matter out with an expensive lunch – the old school tie proving as ever very useful. Meres however would much rather kill someone – preferably Callan himself …
“Lonely was as nervous as a cat at Cruft’s”
As always, Callan calls on his malodorous confederate ‘Lonely’ to get a gun. Played to perfection by Russell Hunter on television, ‘Lonely’ (so named for his tendency to smell whenever he gets nervous, which unfortunately is nearly all the time) really is Callan’s only ally though they are not exactly friends. They met in prison and Callan was the only one to take pity on him. But when Callan was beaten up by the prison wardens, it was Lonely who looked after him. Lonely does in fact care about him but is also terrified of the man’s capacity for violence and ultimately will always yield to the one he fears most.
Once the police surveillance is removed, Callan accepts the job even though he actually quite likes Schneider – indeed the two are quite alike. Both haunted by their wartime experiences, they both relive, and to a degree confront, their past fears and anxieties by playing complex war games with toy soldiers. Mitchell is meticulous in balancing the two men as we are presented with a fairly rounded portrait of a target that our protagonist ends up quite liking, despite the fact that he is supplying weapons that kill British soldiers. On the other hand, Callan despite his best instincts, also tries to please employers he despises and who are planning to betray him anyway. It’s that sense of ethical imbalance and moral complexity that defines the best of cold war espionage and rings true time and again here as Callan and Schneider are set up for the final game. Mitchell originally told a version of this story in an episode of the Armchair Theatre anthology broadcast in the UK in February 1967 with Woodward as Callan, Russell Hunter as Lonely and Meres played by Peter Bowles. Even before it reached the screen plans were made to turn it into a continuing series. Ultimately the show would run for several years, prefaced always by its spare but memorable theme tune, a piece of library music composed by Jan Stoeckart under ‘Jack Trombey’ alias.
The story of the TV version, also entitled A Magnum for Schneider, is essentially the same as the novel’s and contains much of the same dialogue too, though the prose version expands the characters considerably and provides much more in the way of action and overall dramatic momentum so is much more than a mere novelisation. It’s more of a fix-up, like expanding a novella to full-length. After all, the TV version was only 48 minutes long and restricted to half a dozen sets. For all that it is worth seeing as it does a great job of setting up the themes and main characters of the series, which would prove to be an enormous success, though with Anthony Valentine replacing Bowles and proving much better casting in fact. Mitchell would draw on his novel one more time when he wrote the screenplay for a cinema spin-off of the series. I’ll be reviewing the 1974 movie adaptation of the novel very shortly …
DVD Availability: The original TV play can currently be viewed online in three parts (1, 2, and 3) but you would be much better off getting the DVD set Callan: The Monochrome Years if you can – it’s not expensive and in fact is a real bargain given the excellent drama within.
Director: Bill Bain
Producer: Leonard White
Screenplay: James Mitchell
Art Direction: David Marshall
Music: Jan Stoeckart (as ‘Jack Trombey’)
Cast: Edward Woodward, Russell Hunter, Ronald Radd, Peter Bowles, Joseph Fürst, Francesca Tu, Ivor Dean
Back in print after an absence of more than thirty years, Top Notch Thrillers have produced new editions of the first two Callan novels: A Magnum for Schneider (aka Red File for Callan) and Russian Roulette, which also appear as eBooks for the first time. For further details, see the Ostara website. Thanks very much to Mike Ripley and those lovely people at Ostara for providing me with this review copy – the book is very highly recommended.
- A Magnum for Schneider (1969) – aka A Red File for Callan
- Russian Roulette (1973)
- Death and Bright Water (1974)
- Smear Job (1975)
- Bonfire Night (2002)
For further info about the Callan books as well as the TV series and the associated spin-offs, visit the fine Spy Guys and Gals website.