Wednesday, 30 October 2013
The Man Who Sold Death: James Munro, alias James Mitchell, and the '60s John Craig Spy Novels Series
NB: Linked in this Friday's Forgotten Books roundup.
By the time he came to create the TV espionage series Callan in 1967 and write the subsequent series of spin-off novels – beginning with 1969's A Magnum for Schneider – James Mitchell already had plenty of form with spy fiction. Three years before Callan made his television debut, Mitchell, writing under the alias James Munro (not his first nom de plume; he began his career as a novelist in 1955 as Patrick O McGuire), published the first of what would become a four-book series of spy novels:
The Man Who Sold Death, published by Hammond in October 1964 (dust jacket design uncredited). It was an instant hit, tearing through at least three printings in the month of publication alone and garnering rave reviews from Violet Gray of The Daily Telegraph, Frances Iles of The Guardian, Peter Phillips of The Sun, Julian Symons of The Sunday Times, John Weir of The Sunday Express and Anthony Boucher of The New York Times.
The novel's lead is John Craig, a Tyneside shipping manager whose lucrative sideline as a gunrunner comes to a violent end when agents of the French Society for the Solution of the Algerian Problem, enraged by Craig's role in supplying the Algerian Arab rebels with firearms, explode a bomb under his car. On the run and with his wife in a coma and his associates being picked off one by one, Craig is approached by Loomis, head of Department K of MI6, with a proposal: with the assistance of an agent Grierson, go to Nice and assassinate the head of the Society, Colonel Pierre-Auguste Lucien de St. Briac.
Fifty years on from publication the qualities which so enraptured the critics are still evident. The pace is brisk; the background of Algerian unrest, which at the time would have been zeitgeisty, helps to ground the more outlandish aspects of the story; there's international intrigue and even that staple of the spy novel (since Casino Royale anyway), the torture scene; and Craig is an appealing lead – a working class rough diamond made good (Mitchell/Munro had a thing for working class heroes; see also David Callan and, from the Mitchell written-and-created When the Boat Comes In, Jack Ford) whose rugged looks and expertise in gunplay and hand-to-hand combat make him, inevitably, irresistible to the opposite sex.
That the novel strives hard to tick all the espionage boxes, and that these elements don't quite hang together (the narrative links are uncoupled in a bizarre midpoint interlude where, with Department K's help, Craig tracks down a man he met in the war in order to find out if he's a failure... er, or something) – and that Craig isn't as interesting a creation as David Callan (see the aforementioned bizarre interlude, an abortive attempt to add depth to the character) – is why, for me, The Man Who Sold Death isn't as successful a spy novel as A Magnum for Schneider. Like most spy novels of the period it owes a debt to Ian Fleming's Bond novels, but though it's well-written, it rarely rises above its influences. Desmond Cory, whose Johnny Fedora debuted two years before 007, was doing something similar around this period, but to my mind much better; see my review of the 1962 Fedora adventure par excellence, Undertow.
All of which mean that, unlike the Callan novels, where I fully intend to explore the entire five-book series, I'm not sure I'll venture much beyond The Man Who Sold Death, despite the similarly excellent titles of its sequels – Die Rich Die Happy (1965), The Money That Money Can't Buy (1967) and The Innocent Bystanders (1969). Of course, that hasn't stopped me picking up a few John Craig first editions. The copy of The Man Who Sold Death seen above is a first impression (you can also see, alongside the back cover, the back of a third impression too, which carries reviews of the novel), but first printings are so scarce the only affordable copy I could find once resided in the officers mess of the Royal Air Force base at Hack Green:
a base which in 1976, appropriately enough given our Cold War context, was turned into a secret nuclear bunker. First editions of the later novels are slightly easier to come by, but even with these you can come a cropper and wind up with a second impression, as I did with this:
Die Rich Die Happy, the second Craig outing, published by Hammond in 1965, cover design by Roger Harris. I bought it dead cheap on eBay, deciding to take a chance on it being a first impression, which, as it turned out, and as evidenced by the "2nd Impression" on the dust jacket front flap:
it isn't. The copy of the other Craig novel I own in first is a first impression, though:
The Innocent Bystanders, the fourth book in the series, published by Herbert Jenkins in 1969. Though this would be the final John Craig novel, Craig was destined to live on – for a little while longer – in a different medium when The Innocent Bystanders was adapted for the big screen in 1972, written by Mitchell (using his own name rather than that of Munro), directed by Peter Collinson and starring Stanley Baker as John Craig. Sadly, the film wasn't terribly well received upon release and isn't held in terribly high regard now; an ignominious end for Mr. Craig, at least until, a la Mike Ripley's Top Notch Thrillers imprint with the Callan novels, some enterprising soul elects to bring the series back into print.
I'll be blogging about another TV spy writer with a sideline in novels before too long, but ahead of that, I have another Existential Ennui permanent page to unveil, one which incorporates some of the covers to James Mitchell's books...