Following on from the success of the first collection of James Mitchell’s long-thought lost short stories about his classic Cold War secret agent David Callan, here’s comes a very welcome and unexpected surprise – a sequel! The diffident protagonist was created for television, thriving in the shape of the late Edward Woodward, but eventually also moved into the cinema and in print. Editor Mike Ripley thought he had collected all of the stories, but has subsequently found another 15 missing ‘files,’ which he has brought together with a pair of scripts by Mitchell for TV episodes that are currently missing believed wiped.
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.
His right hand flashed for the gun beneath the coat.
Callan fired first. (File on the Happy Hippy, 1970)
Like those contained in the previous volume, the stories were all written for the Sunday Express newspaper and first appeared in three batches of five between September 1970 and May 1972, predating those in the previous volume. They are tight, taut and short – on average about half or two-thirds the length of the later stories contained in the previous collection. The first five in particular, from 1970, are the briefest and so feel much more like concentrated vignettes. The ten stories from 1971 and 1972 are noticeably longer and the better for it, allowing better character development and more elaborate plots. None the less they all feel genuine, thanks to Mitchell’s memorable dialogue, especially in the exchanges between Callan and his smelly friend, Lonely, and a great ability to ring the changes in the espionage formula even in just a few thousand words. All of these stories could have been adapted for the TV show, which I think is a true testament to Mitchell’s professionalism and invention.
Lonely’s voice rose to a squeak. “You mean there’s going to be violence?”
“You can bet on it,” said Callan. (File on a Fancy Lawyer, 1970)
There is, inevitably, a basic formula that keeps being replayed – Hunter lays out the job, usually without giving Callan all the information; Lonely gets hired to do some tailing or breaking and entering; and Meres grudgingly holds up the rear – and the villains are nearly always the Reds (of the Chinese, Soviet or East German variety), even when the stories are ostensibly about the Americans, the French or potentates from emerging African nations. Ripley in his introduction rightly prepares the reader for aspects that will seem a bit dated – certainly Lonely makes some wince-inducing comments about the Chinese in File on a Chinese Hostess (from 1971), while ‘Hunter’ displays some decidedly retrograde attitudes about women, though given that Callan doe snot provide the provenance in both cases makes it clear that we are hardly invited to share these points of view:
“She’s bored,” Hunter said. “Bored with her husband, bored with her life. No children and a more than adequate income. Women like that are always ripe for mischief.” (File on a Gallic Charmer, 1972)
There are also maybe too many stories that begin with Hunter asking Callan if he finds a woman attractive before telling him why she has been assigned a file, though this is very nicely modified for File on a Friendly Lady from 1972, a tale about two American women Callan has to protect and who spend most of the story mocking him (until the men with guns show up of course).
Meres sighed. Callan was marvellous at his job and all that , but he did worry so. (File on a Man Called Callan, 1972)
In addition to the stories we also get two scripts from episodes that are currently missing. Although reading a TV script can sound dry and tedious, if you are at all familiar with the original TV show then these become very easy to enjoy, thanks to Mike Ripley’s judicious editing. In the first, from the first season, Callan is hung out to dry by Hunter and set up in the worst manner imaginable; in the second season script, Callan is getting on much better with his new ‘Hunter’ for a story that is much less cynical. Ripley provides a useful introduction to these but also makes a small error when stating that none of the six episodes from the first season survive – the first and last, both by Mitchell, are thankfully intact and were released on DVD as part of the Callan: The Monochrome Years set from Network DVD. Anyone interested in the original Callan show can do no better than visiting the Digital Tapestries website for its fascinating details on how the show came about: www.digitaltapestries.com/callan/
The David Callan series
- A Magnum for Schneider (1969) – read my review here
- Russian Roulette (1973)
- Death and Bright Water (1974)
- Smear Job (1975)
- Bonfire Night (2002)
- Callan Uncovered (2014) – read my review here
- Callan Uncovered 2 (2015)
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. Thanks to Mike and Ostara for the review copy.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘number in the title’ category :