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.
Death and Bright Water (1974)
There had been big changes since the last novel appeared a year earlier. The tv series had finished and Callan had transferred to the cinema in a moderately successful feature film (apparently the first to utilise Dolby sound). It seems that James Mitchell saw Callan’s future as on the big screen. The plots of this novel and the next one reflect that change.
The story begins with Callan once more out of the Section and this time working with a road building gang. He is approached, via the KGB, to rescue an important Greek communist’s daughter from house arrest on Crete. Callan turns down the job, but is persuaded to take it after some pressure from the Section. A crack squad is assembled, but it’s soon clear that some team members have plans of their own.
While Hunter and the Section play a much smaller role than before, Lonely, however, was far too valuable a character to omit; and so he is brought along to assist in the inevitable house-breaking that will be required for the Crete stronghold.
The story moves along at a cracking pace, but James Mitchell has moved into 1970s international thriller territory, and this involves exotic locales (well, Crete) and a certain amount of travelogue writing.
Smear Job (1975)
By now Callan (and Lonely) are more or less free agents, pursuing lucrative careers in the world of personal security. The Section exists only to tie them, and potential readers, to the TV series.
From the blurb:
“There were two little tasks which Callan had to carry out for Hunter; he had to make sure that Gunther Kleist lost a very large sum of money at cards, and he had to steal a book from Lord Hexham’s library, a paperback edition of Mein Kampf….but that was only the start, an appetiser to a plot of diabolical complexity weaved by Hunter; a plot that was to take Callan from Sicily to Las Vegas, then on to Mexico, with death waiting at every turn.”
We have come a long way from the swinging light bulb of seven years ago….perhaps too far. This was to be the last Callan novel for twenty-seven years. It’s not hard to see why; the TV series was over and with it the loyal army of viewers and readers. I don’t how the sales compared with the earlier novels, but I don’t think that either this book or Death and Bright Water ran to more than a single printing in paperback. James Mitchell and his publishers might well have concluded that, commercially at least, Callan had run his course…
In any event, James Mitchell turned his attention back to screen-writing (When the Boat Comes In) and to a three book series in the mid 1980s featuring reluctant adventurer Ron Hoggett, and his minder Dave – “ex-student, ex-paratrooper, ex drop-out”.
To summarise – James Mitchell was incapable of writing a dull book and the last two novels are fast moving adventure thrillers. Seen from the present day they perhaps don’t capture the authentic atmosphere of the TV series in the way that the first two novels do. But all four books remain very readable.
Bonfire Night (2002)
Written when James Mitchell was old and unwell, and published a year before his death, this is something of a curio. Callan has been free of the Section for at least a decade, and in that time he and Lonely have made vast fortunes in the electronics business. This at least follows on from the conclusion of the previous novel, when Callan and Lonely were establishing something of a living outside the Section. But the plot, which need not detain us here, is difficult to credit when it’s not merely confusing. The book is not without its moments, but is for Callan completists only.
Stuart Radmore, April 2019