SMEAR JOB (1975) by James Mitchell

5ac3f55f5021a557db48b22d3d936388David Callan is a dyspeptic working-class spy employed by a spartan MI6 black ops unit known only as ‘The Section.’ An exceptional marksman with a deep-rooted (and usually well-founded) distrust of authority, his nasty assignments do little to assuage his sense of unease. Originally created for television, the character eventually migrated to the cinema and on to the printed page. This was the fourth and longest novel in the series, featuring a sprawling narrative that moves all round the globe.

I offer the following review for Bev’s Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme hosted today by Todd Mason at his Sweet Freedom blog.

“That’s right, old son,” he said. “Now we’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“Lonely said, “You have to be joking.”

The Callan TV series ended in 1973, leading into Mitchell’s novel, Death and Bright Water (1974), involving an adventure in Crete. Smear Job pretty much picks up from there, with Callan still out of the section and working in the private sector, doing very nicely selling security systems with the help of Lonely, his smelly but loyal friend. But Hunter comes a calling as he needs them both to go to Sicily to steal a copy of Das Kapital from the safe of an English nobleman, and to also make sure that a German man he knows loses heavily at cards too. While Lonely, Callan and voluminous card sharp Bulky Berkeley head off to Sicily, Hunter gets his men Meres and FitzMaurice to deal with a bit of local bother that has taken too much interest in Lonely’s activities. We are also given brief episodes dealing with the drug-addled sexual exploits in the US of one ‘Trudi von Nichts’ and it is this part of the plot that takes the longest to come into focus. Then things get really complicated, leading to trips to New York, Las Vegas, Mexico and Bonn before a climactic showdown on the Suffolk coast.

The man in the doorway was smiling, but that smile had never reached his eyes

Mitchell_Smear_corgiThis thrilling book is a bit of an epic (the original hardback ran to over 300 pages and there’s enough story here for two novels) and does have a valedictory feel about it, rounding off almost a decade in the career of our anti-hero. Callan starts off a little out of shape but is quickly back on top form before once again hitting the bottle as he becomes overcome by the cynicism all around him and having to try and claw his way back again. And ultimately this is a story of Pyrrhic victories where survival, meaning ones own sense of self, is the only true thing you must be able to walk away with still intact. As the book opens, Lonely is actually enjoying going ‘straight’ as a security consultant in Callan’s firm and is looking forward from now on to being an executive known as ‘Roger de Vere Bollivant’ but he probably has some growing up to do first (as his Uncle Lennie puts it) as Hunter’s machinations put him in jeopardy. The dialogue is as crisp as ever and Callan’s many exchanges with Lonely are, as always, a true highlight.

“You’ve got it all wrong,” said Callan. “We don’t want to destroy her. Just use her.”

The action when it comes is handled with the author’s customary immediacy and succinctness while the plot is enjoyably convoluted, though Mitchell never loses his firm grasp on the material. Perhaps the section set in the US is a bit less compelling that the rest of the story set in Europe, simply because Lonely is completely absent. But this is very much by design, as Mitchell wants to bring into relief Callan’s loyalty to the man and the sense of responsibility that he feels for him, which of course makes him vulnerable to manipulation by Hunter. Indeed, what eventually emerges most strongly, especially though its two main female characters – the doom-laden Trudi and the smart and idealistic Elizabeth Manette, a US senator’s daughter who learns of her father’s feet of clay the hard way – is the way that friendships are exploited by the powerful and cynical to their own ends, with no one (not even Hunter by the end) spared from this.

“Young love isn’t good for middle-aged men, Mr Tucker. It makes them vulnerable.”

Back in print after an absence of more than thirty years, Top Notch Thrillers have now produced new editions of all of the Callan novels, which is great news for fans of Cold War espionage as Mitchell was a truly first-rate thriller writer. 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 – as you can probably tell, I really liked this one a lot so the book is very highly recommended.

The David Callan series

  1. A Magnum for Schneider  (1969) – review
  2. Russian Roulette (1973)
  3. Death and Bright Water (1974)
  4. Smear Job (1975)
  5. Bonfire Night (2002)
  6. Callan Uncovered (2014) – review
  7. Callan Uncovered 2 (2015) – review

For further info about the Callan books as well as the TV series and the associated spin-offs, you should certainly visit Spy Guys and Gals and Enid and Daza’s It’s So Last Century and I especially recommend the various posts by Nick Jones on Mitchell and the Callan saga over at his Existential Ennui blog.

I offer this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘broken object’ category:


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

This entry was posted in 2016 Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt, Cold War, David Callan, Espionage, Friday's Forgotten Book, Germany, Italy, James Mitchell, Las Vegas, London, Mexico, Ostara Publishing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to SMEAR JOB (1975) by James Mitchell

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I must confess, Sergio, that’s a series I’m not familiar with, so it’s good to get your view on it. One thing I like about it is that it sounds as though it keeps its focus, even if it is a bit long and convoluted. That’s not easy to do when there are multiple plot threads.

    • Thanks Margot – Callan was very popular in Britain in the 60s and 70s especially – The Equalizer in the 80s was a kind of US version with the same actor. The books are really well done – if you like Cold War spy fiction, then this is a great example of it.

  2. Colin says:

    I’ve not read any of these books but have liked what I’ve seen of the TV series so far. I have to say your enthusiasm for the whole “world of Callan” is genuinely infectious though.

    • I wasn’t sure if you’d started on the TV show yet – glad you are enjoying them chum. The books are very well written – Mitchell always wrote to order but was a real craftsman.

  3. Sue says:

    I loved this book. Just searched the shelves and looks like I’ve loaned it to somebody…

    The card playing scene with Bulky and the English man is one of the funniest card playing scenes ever. Yes, you are right – the plot is convoluted, but it’s so clever.

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Great news that the Callan books are all available again!

  5. I’ve gone back and reread A RED FILE FOR CALLAN. Mitchell captures the ambiguity of the spy novels of the Sixties. I’ll have to find the other Callan novels and reread them, too. Thanks for reminding me how good this series was!

  6. tracybham says:

    Sounds very good, Sergio. Does it matter much what order these are read in?

  7. Matt Paust says:

    I’ve not heard of this author, Sergio, but your enthusiastic review is enticing. Glad to know the series is back in print (I hope on ebooks, as well).

  8. Whenever you mention Callan (quite frequently then…) I remember how much I liked the TV series, and think I should follow up on some other aspect of the world of Callan. This sounds quite splendid.

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