A MAGNUM FOR SCHNEIDER (1969) by James Mitchell

Callan 1David 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.

Callan-movie-01

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 …

Magnum-for-Schneider-1967-02

DVD Availability: The original TV play can currently be viewed online in three parts (12, 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.

Callan 2The David Callan series

  1. A Magnum for Schneider  (1969) – aka A Red File for Callan
  2. Russian Roulette (1973)
  3. Death and Bright Water (1974)
  4. Smear Job (1975)
  5. 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.

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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29 Responses to A MAGNUM FOR SCHNEIDER (1969) by James Mitchell

  1. Sergio – Sounds like quite a good story in both versions. Pleasant surprise too to read that the TV adaptation stayed fairly close to the novel and was also well done. I’ll be interested in your review of the film. In the meantime, I’m glad I don’t have my TBR list handy to add this to it… ;-)

  2. le0pard13 says:

    I actually have CALLEN Set 1, purely on the strength that it starred Edward Woodard. And that’s because he totally won me over as I watched ‘The Equalizer’ during the 80s. Must pick up Set 2 and ‘The Monochrome Years’ now. Wonderful look at this, Sergio.

    • Cheers Michael – the set numbers were a bit confusing when I first got into the show as I think they were not released in correct chronological order on DVD until Network put out their two complete sets – I got through several iterations before realising this making it seem wildly inconsistent at times. The Monochrome set is really superb – there is something really special about black and white video – indeed, ‘video noir’ is the only way to describe it I think – like the early episodes of The Avengers but much darker. The book is superb too.

  3. TracyK says:

    I have to echo Margot. The book sounds good, the adaptation sounds good. I will have to look for both of them. Spy fiction is one of my favorite types of reading and I plan to get more read in 2014.

  4. neer says:

    I too echo the sentiments of those who have commented. This does seem like a very interesting book. Thanks a lot Sergio.

  5. Colin says:

    Callan is only familiar to me as a name. I remember the TV show being on the box, just about, but never actually saw it. I know too, from a certain forum you and I both frequent, that it’s very highly regarded. Needless to say, the book is completely new to me.

    • Well Colin, I know how you feel about telly but let’s put it this way – if you likes The Sandbaggers, then you’ll love this! Indeed, you could argue that it is hard to imagine one getting made without the other, though James Mitchell hardly cornered the market in jaded espionage – but it did do it awfully well! The TV version of Magnum is a rather faded tele recording unfortunately – most of the other episodes are much sharper in appearance.

      • Colin says:

        I did enjoy The Sandbaggers, and thanks very much for introducing he series to me. I’m actually quite interested in this and may go ahead and take a chance on it.

        • You’ll love it, honest – woild I lie to you ..? Technically the later colour episodes are in better nick, no question, but the black and white episodes have a special flavour all their own – you definitely should watch in sequence though.

          • Colin says:

            There seem to be a few missing eps. Does that hurt the continuity any?

          • Not really as far as I am concerned. It is a shame but several are sadly missing – after the pilot film only 2 out of the initial six of the first series are extant and from the second series of 15 another six are missing. The most important in terms of plot continuity seem, as far as I could gauge, to have survived. There are no such problems with the later colour episodes though. By the way, and I know I’ve mentioned this before, but this show, along with wonderful Public Eye, are probably my favourites from the sixties – I do try top keep my enthusiasm in check, but it ‘aint easy … Wikipedia has a comprehensive list here.

          • Colin says:

            Thank you – very useful.

          • I was surprised how handy it was.

  6. Excellent review – loved the TV series and had a tatty Magnum paperback I read over and over again. Thought the tv show was brilliantly cast – I was lucky enough to see Russell Hunter in a one man play once and he was an amazing actor.

    • Thanks very much Karen – I was just watching an interview with Woodward on the Callan movie DVD where he was talking about Hunter’s one-man show – I do envy you that, he was a terrific actor – thanks again for the kind words.

  7. I read the first four of these books Way Back When. I didn’t know about the 2002 BONFIRE NIGHT. I remember enjoying James Mitchell’s novels, but I somehow missed the TV series. I’ll have to remedy that. Another fine review!

  8. Ela says:

    I’d heard of Callan before as having been played by Woodward, but never actually seen it. The book sounds really interesting – were there more novels by Mitchell or did Callan have most of his adventures only on TV?

    • Thanks Ela – in total there are 5 books and the same publishers after reprinting the first two plan to do more in the new year – here are the full titles:

      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)

  9. Sergio, thanks for adding to my list of spy thrillers to read! I’m definitely jotting this one down. Spy fiction is one of my favourite genres and I can never have enough of it. I liked the characterisation of David Callan although in some ways it’s all too familiar, having a conscience and working on his own and without legal sanction. Paul Chavasse and Sean Dillon (Jack Higgins) and Mack Bolan (Don Pendleton) are probable examples though James Mitchell’s spy appears more realistic and is shorn of glamour that makes his character appealing. Edward Woodward and Russell Hunter look vaguely familiar though I can’t place them.

    • Thanks Prashant – this stories are very low key, very much in the le Carre style rather than Fleming shall we say. Woodward went to America and starred in The Equalizer, which you might have seen, and which was a sort of update on the Callan character in some ways. He also starred in the Australian classic, Breaker Morant, whiuch i hope to review here at Fedora soon(ish).

      • I haven’t seen these two films, Sergio, but I look forward to reading your review of BREAKER MORANT. I forget that films are made outside of Hollywood and Bollywood too, not that I watch much of the latter for I can’t tolerate a film beyond an hour and a half. I’ll have to dig up Woodward from the recesses of my memory or perhaps I’ll take a look at his filmography and see if something clicks.

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