David Callan is an agent for British Intelligence and his great skill is marksmanship – but he is tortured by ethical and moral dilemmas. For every double agent uncovered or paid assassin eliminated, there is always a cost, usually borne by innocents caught in the crossfire. His boss – codenamed ‘Hunter’ – doesn’t seem to care, and neither does Meres, the section’s other most notable agent. But Callan does care and, usually to his own cost, refuses to just blindly follow orders. This is the terrain covered by the Cold War stories contained in this superb new collection.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge.
“You saying he’s naughty?” asked Callan.
“Extremely,” said Hunter. (File on an Angry Actor, 1974)
Callan was a character that exploded on television but eventually migrated to print – and then, briefly, back again. In this regard this volume offers a substantial trove of new and unexpected riches, with short stories and scripts that will delight all devotees of the tough, downbeat British spy created by James Mitchell. The character first appeared in the 1967 television play A Magnum for Schneider, portrayed then (and forever more) by the late, great Edward Woodward. The TV company saw the potential right away for a show that fell somewhere in between the cynical despair of le Carré, the hardboiled wisecracks of Deighton and the glossy Bond fantasies of the cinema.
The Callan series ultimately ran for five years, with Mitchell contributing almost half the scripts. After that he wrote the 1974 movie spin-off (which I reviewed here), the 1981 reunion TV-Movie, Wet Job, five novels and some two dozen short stories. It is the latter that are now finally being collected here for the very first time, some forty years after first appearing in the Daily Express newspaper (originally between 1973 and 1976). This new anthology (and my review copy) comes courtesy of editor Mike Ripley and those very nice people at Top Notch Thrillers who previously gave us new editions of the first three Callan novels: A Magnum for Schneider (aka Red File for Callan and which I previously reviewed here), Russian Roulette and Death and Bright Water. It also includes a Mitchell ‘Outline Treatment’ for the Callan TV episode ‘That’ll Be the Day’ that launched the fourth and final season; and a previously unseen full-length script – Goodbye Mary Lee – for an episode that was never filmed. Along with Ripley’s preface we also get a fond if fairly unvarnished portrait of the author in an introduction by his son and literary executor, Peter Mitchell.
The first story is from 1967, when the show had just finished its first season, and was a Christmas one-off for the listings magazine TV Times. It sees our hero, with the help of Lonely – a petty criminal and the closest thing Callan has to a friend – eliminate a double agent trying to flee the country. The remaining 24 stories were all published in the 70s, immediately after the end of the final season, but are in fact set slightly before then. Most of them feature Meres, Hunter and Lonely and enjoy putting the proletariat Callan in slightly incongruous esoteric or upper-class situations such as the world of fine art, movie-making, formula one car racing, the ballet (“The bally,” said Lonely. “Me?”), exclusive health farms and aristocratic shooting parties. Callan does however get his own back when he can, especially with the unscrupulous Meres:
“That’s an order,” said Callan. “You Remember orders? They’re the things I give and you take.” (File on a Doomed Defector, 1975)
The stories were all written for newspaper publication, so none of them is particularly long – roughly 3,500 words each (which translates here in 9 to 10 pages) – but with their plot reversals, cynical double-dealing and sardonic, hardboiled dialogue, they could all have been used as the basis for episodes of the show and always feel authentic. Starting with their alliterative title template, the basic structure may seem a little bit formulaic: we usually begin with Hunter giving Callan a job, who then invariably uses Lonely to follow a person or break into a room to search for incriminating evidence or plant a bug, with Meres called in occasionally for (grudging) support. But they all the tales work extremely well for all that, told with Mitchell’s trademark verve and craftsmanship. My personal favourite may well be File on a Doomed Defector perhaps because it is partly set in Italy but mainly because its plot – involving Callan having to protect an ex SS officer – is very tightly worked out and has a fine irony and surprise to its conclusion.
“You could always rely on Lonely, if he didn’t get too scared …” (File on a Reckless Rider, 1973)
The inclusion of the unfilmed screenplay ‘Goodbye Mary Lee‘ (initially titled ‘The Senator’s Daughter’) is especially valuable for fans given that several of the episodes Mitchell wrote for the series were wiped and have not been recovered (though of course one lives in hope). It was almost certainly intended originally to open the second season as it refers to Callan’s boss as ‘Colonel Hunter’, which became just ‘Hunter’ from the second season onwards, and because it features a Callan still in disfavour with the Section and out in the cold, as he was at the end of season 1.
Why wasn’t it made? Well, it may have been dropped for its references to the Vietnam War – or more probably perhaps because it is built on a gigantic coincidence that stretched credibility too far. A radicalised American stewardess, acting as a courier for Cuba to protest against the war in Vietnam, is in the process of being framed with a five-year jail sentence by Hunter as a favour to the CIA, who want to keep her father happy. He is a rabidly right-wing Senator and wants her out of the way until he finishes his final term in office. And her boyfriend just happens to be … Callan, the two having met while he was holidaying in Jamaica (!) Despite such implausibilities, the script still reads extremely well, with Mitchell’s pungent dialogue and undercurrent of anti-establishment rancour coming through as well as ever, and the ironic finale is very neatly worked out.
The David Callan series
- 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)
- Callan Uncovered (2014) – short stories
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.
Ripley has written a typically in-depth look at Callan in print and on-screen and you can read Uncovering Callan essay right here. For further details on Mitchell and the Callan books now in print, see the Ostara website.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘set in England’ category as all the stories included here, originally published between 1967 and 1976, and all of which are set in the British Isles (though some do include Callan having to briefly travel to the Continent or the US before coming back again):