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...


  1. I read the first three of these in their U.S. paperback editions, I believe. Can't remember much about them other that that I enjoyed them.

  2. There will be a Top Notch Thriller edition of "The Innocent Bystanders" in April 2014, alongside the Callan novel "Death and Bright Water".

  3. Terrific review Nick, and thanks for all the great info and images - just got the Ostara edition of MAGNUM so am really looking forward to plenty of Mitchell / Munro in the near future.

  4. Thanks Sergio – and thanks to Bill and of course Mike; nice to hear more of Mitchell's Callan novels and one of his Craig novels will soon be widely available again.

  5. I read all five Callan books then all four of Craig’s exploits less than a year ago. As you know Mitchell was a slick storyteller and wonderful wordsmith (as an American one of my hobbies is British slang and these novels really test my mettle). Anyway do NOT do yourself a disservice, my friend; read the other three Craig books, while not the caliber of THE MAN WHO SOLD DEATH they are better than any Sam Durrell assignment. Also I'd recommend scaring up a copy of BONFIRE NIGHT. Stylistically it's vastly different from the prior four Callans---nonetheless Mitchell is operating at the very top of his game in this dense narrative.

  6. Thanks Darryl. I'm minded to read the other Callan novels ahead of the Craig ones, but I will get to the Craigs eventually. And as luck would have it, despite its scarcity, I may even be able to get my hands on a copy of Bonfire Night...

  7. Louis, really love your website (I can even pronounce it correctly and know what the words mean). You read all the same books I do: Sam Durell, Matt Helm, Bond, etc. I never read LeCarre or Deighton till I ran out of Callan books (I prefer James Mitchell to both John and Len). No need to print this on your site, I’ve no objections if you do, but I just wanted to share these thoughts:

    A. Again, Existential Ennui is [fill in your own accolade!].
    B. Bonfire Night is easily sourced on Amazon, you may have to suffer the indignity of a 25 dollar ex-library copy than the pristine first editions you like but the novel is truly worthwhile. [looking forward to your review] Death and Bright Water is the best Callan novel, followed by Russian Roulette. Mitchell triggered several storylines by having Hunter throw Callan to communist wolves or threaten to kill him if certain things don’t get done. The TV series augments the books nicely, I’m sure you’ve seen it. I thought the cheaply produced Callan series smoked the Prisoner and its lavish budget. Callan boasted far better actors and scripts.
    C. The final three Craig books find Mitchell kicking Craig when he’s down harder than he ever kicked Callan. At one point enemies attach electrodes to his genitals and char him black and crusty. It was so awful I found it hilarious and wondered if Craig ever ‘performed’ again. You’ll have to read and find out, but the best part of the journey is on the way you’ll meet some of the coolest villains this side of Modesty Blaise. O’Donnell is more recognizable among cognoscenti than Mr. Mitchell, but both are woefully unsung heroes of the typewriter.

    Forgive my rambling. Peace. drrryl

  8. Thanks for all that Darryl! I was being slightly disingenuous with Bonfire Night: I have actually secured a copy, and not an ex-library one either. Well, not quite... Anyway, I'm looking forward to reading more James Mitchell – he's very high up on my to-read list.

    With you on Peter O'Donnell too. I actually got to work with the man when I was in charge of Titan's Modesty reprints in the 2000s, and interviewed him at his home too. (You can read the interview in the early Modesty volumes, none of which I own!) Lovely guy.

  9. Although I read most of the Blaise novels by the time I was 18 I reread PIECES OF MODESTY last summer, stunned at what a fabulous storyteller O'Donnell was: real beginning-middle-end stuff. And those were just short stories! Almost every one rated an Edgar. I guess authoring the strip helped.

    O'Donnell could make the most absurd events believable, except for the time Willie plummeted out of an airborne plane without a parachute and lived. A tree broke his fall. And I've got a bridge for sale if anyone's interested.

    I'm envious you met O'Donnell and edited the Titan comic strip books. What does an editing job like that entail? Did you get to choose the covers, fonts used, etc.?

  10. Rather a belated reply for you, Darryl, but yes, it entailed that kind of thing, plus sourcing feature material for the start of each volume and sourcing and overseeing the scanning of the comic strips. An editor by the name of JP Rutter took over the reins of the series after the first couple of volumes – I was still overseeing – and did a fine job for the next few years, sourcing some excellent introductory material.