James Mitchell (1926 -2002) held a number of jobs, including actor, teacher and journalist, before his first novel was published in the mid ‘fifties. Between 1964 and 1969 (as James Munro) he wrote four well-received thrillers featuring “John Craig of Department K, British Secret Service, whose activities involve jobs too dangerous – or too dirty – for anyone else to handle.”. It’s unsurprising that Mitchell would wish to adapt a Craig-like character for a television audience.
A Magnum for Schneider (1969)
The first Callan novel, and perhaps the locus classicus of all Callan plots, on page and screen: A disillusioned Callan has left the Section and is living and working in reduced circumstances, until “persuaded” by Hunter to return and carry out one more job. The target is Herr Schneider who, once Callan knows more of him, doesn’t seem to be as black as he’s painted…
James Mitchell certainly put this plot to good use. It began life as a one-off episode of Armchair Theatre (1967), which in turn led to the making of the first Callan television series, later that year.
Now, in 1969, it formed the basis of the first Callan novel. This is no quick cash-in book on the back of a TV success. Considerably expanded from the tv play, the novel has greater depth and characterisation, and it benefits for being less studio bound.
A paperback edition followed in 1971, re-titled Red File for Callan. This was much reprinted, as by now the TV series, with the massive assistance of Edward Woodward in the title role, had hit its stride.
Then in 1974, after the TV series had ended, there was a feature film. Once more, the same plot and characters were used, but the film (perhaps for copyright reasons) relied more on the novel than on the Armchair Theatre script. This time the movie tie-in paperback was simply re-titled Callan. If there’s ever a Callan: Rebooted, this is the plot they’ll return to.
Russian Roulette (1973)
Although published in 1973 this book makes no reference to the events of high drama with which the final TV series concluded a year earlier. Here, Callan is still settled in the Section and all the supporting characters are in place.
The premise, it must be said, is preposterous. The KGB have captured the Section’s top man in Russia. They will return him unharmed if Hunter allows three of their operatives to come to London and attempt to kill Callan, who is to be denied any weapons. Hunter agrees. And the Russians have a big dog. Oh, and Callan’s eyes are playing up; he must attend a doctor’s for drops every few days while awaiting an operation to save his sight.
However, because of the quality of the writing, disbelief is soon suspended. Relatively short, at 200 pages, all the action is splendidly economical and convincing. This is a first class thriller and James Mitchell deservedly received his best reviews for this book.
The story ends with Callan and Lonely toasting each other’s survival, and with Callan vowing never to return to work for the Section….
May 8, 2021 at 4:15 pm
I have both of these books and have read them several times. Great economical writingfast paced, exciting and humorous too. Would be lovely to wake up one day and discover the Folio Society had published them complete with illustrations…