Monday 28 October 2013

The Callan Spy Thriller Series of Novels by Writer and Creator James Mitchell (Jenkins / Hamilton / Severn House, 1969–2002)

Last week saw the return to print after nearly forty years of the first two instalments in author and television writer James Mitchell's five-book spin-off series of novels from his Edward Woodward-starring TV series Callan, courtesy of Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint (not to mention their eBook debuts too). I reviewed the first of those, 1969's A Magnum for Schneider, alias A Red File for Callan (its US title), alias Callan (it was reissued by Corgi in 1974 to tie in with the Callan movie), originally published in the UK by Herbert Jenkins, on Friday; now I thought we could take a look at some of the other Callan first editions I've acquired, beginning with the second Callan novel:

Russian Roulette, published in hardback by Hamish Hamilton in 1973, with a dust jacket photograph credited to Beverly Lebarrow, alias Beverley le Barrow, alias former glamour photographer Beverley Goodway – at least, I believe "Beverley le Barrow" to be an alias of Beverley Goodway; an anonymous commenter on my post about the James Bond Panther paperbacks begs to differ, despite the information presented in that post. Anyway, Russian Roulette was the other Callan novel reissued by Top Notch Thrillers last week, and sees recalcitrant assassin David Callan offered up to the Russians by his former employers at British Intelligence outfit the Section as a trade for a captured agent.

By the time Russian Roulette was originally published the Callan TV series had effectively ended (as mentioned above, it was revived for the big screen in 1974 – that film telling the same story as the 1967 Callan TV pilot and A Magnum for Schneider – and was further revived in 1981 as a TV movie). But James Mitchell had been a novelist longer than he'd been a television writer – his first novel, A Time for Murder, written under the pen name Patrick O McGuire, was published in 1955 by Hammond, whereas his debut television drama, the Armchair Theatre production Flight from Treason, adapted by Mitchell from his own novel (A Way Back, Peter Davies, 1959), was broadcast in 1960 – and so it was natural for him to extend Callan's life in the novel format. Which he did again in 1974:

with Death and Bright Water, again published by Hamilton (dust jacket design uncredited, although the photo on the front is a publicity shot from the Callan movie), sending Callan "and the faithful, odoriferous Lonely", as the jacket flap copy puts it, to Crete. While British first editions of Russian Roulette are relatively easy to come by these days, British firsts of Death and Bright Water aren't quite so common, at least not in the UK; I can see just one (non ex-library) copy for sale online at present, although there are others available from Australian and American sellers. Oddly enough I've ended up with two copies of the Hamilton first – one bought in the late lamented Dim and Distant in Heathfield (now Tome in Eastbourne), one bought... for the life of me I can't remember where – so if anyone reading this is looking for one, drop me a line.

I have just the one copy of the Hamilton first of the next Callan novel, however, as it's in even shorter supply:

Smear Job, published by Hamilton in 1975, dust jacket design by Ken Reilly (incorporating the same promotional image from the Callan movie as Death and Bright Water). This one sees Callan and Lonely pursuing, according to the jacket flap copy, "quieter, if less lucrative careers in the world of personal security", an enterprise which takes them to Sicily, Las Vegas and Mexico.

Smear Job was published on the eve of arguably Mitchell's greatest success, the TV drama When the Boat Comes In (starring fellow north easterner James Bolam), which was broadcast on BBC1 to huge audiences from January 1976 to April 1981. This and various other TV endeavours – Goodbye Darling (1981), Spyship (1983) – and around a dozen standalone novels kept him preoccupied for the next twenty-five years or so, but he made a belated return to Callan just before his death in 2002 with a fifth novel, Bonfire Night, published by Severn House. I haven't yet secured a copy of that one – I'll doubtless post it when I do – but I have secured a number of the spy novels Mitchell published in the 1960s, pre-Callan, written under the nom de plume James Munro and starring gunrunner-turned-secret agent John Craig...


  1. Terrific post Nick - I'm really looking forward to getting the Ostara reprints. Some lovely editions you've got mate - congrats!


  2. The first four Callan novels are good solid thrillers, and have been unjustly neglected (until now)

    The final book ("Bonfire Night") is a bit weird. I haven't read it in years, but I seem to recall that Lonely is now an IT millionaire...

  3. Yes, Bonfire Night does seem to be regarded as an odd kettle of fish. I'm quite intrigued by it.

  4. I started reading James Mitchell's books when I was about 9 years old. I'd loved Callan at the age of 7 (weird girl). I've read all his books that I know of (several times), the Callan novels I've read at least 10 times each. I eventually managed to make contact with Jim in the 80s, and we became quite close pen-friends (I live in Australia) till his death :-(
    He wrote Bonfire Night when he was very ill before he died, and I think it shows. It is confusing, and reads more like a script than a book. It seems odd compared to the other callan books, but not when you compare it to his other books, which have a plethora of millionaires, eccentrics, etc. I think it was nice for him to give Callan and Lonely the parting gift of being millionaires living in Spain, and Callan at last finding love.

  5. Thanks for that, Saz. Fascinated to hear you were pen-friends with Mitchell; did you discuss Callan in your letters?

  6. He didn't really comment much on what he was writing (although sometimes answered my questions) - he didn't even let me know when he had a new book out! He mostly wrote about his family and things. His letters read just like his books - very succinct, and a lot of it between the lines rather than spelt out. He did once sign off on a letter to me with "Callan sends his love" which is one of the nicest things anyone's ever written to me. Another nice thing was a line in a letter from Edward Woodward after I sent him a letter and mentioned that JM and I corresponded - EW asked me for JM's address, but I never found out if he made contact. I was going to make my own tribute site years ago, but then it felt a bit tacky, and a bit like a betrayal, so I didn't, but I might do so one day. I live in OZ, but was born in UK - I went there in July for the first time in 15 years, and visited where JM's ashes are. I miss corresponding with him :-(

    1. Nice post Saz. Thanks for your kind words. Far as I know EW never made contact again but I have very fond memories him as a bloke as well as great respect for him as an actor. My Dad always said he was so lucky with his leading guys - Woodward and Bolam.

  7. Hi Saz I think we swapped emails some years back about JM and his callan books. When I noticed your site had disappeared I took the liberty of add the information to mine:

    So your tribute lives on.