Thursday, 4 June 2015



Terse talking and tough acting secret agent David Callan is back, in a second omnibus of short stories even better than the first.

The man who walks alone... Edward Woodward as Callan (Image: ITV)

Last year, for the first time, Ostara published over 20 short stories by James Mitchell featuring his troubled British intelligence executioner, David Callan, that were printed in the TV Times and Sunday Express over forty years ago. For enthusiasts of the TV series the tales were based on (which ran between 1967 and 1972), Callan Uncovered was quite a prize: although featuring on some websites in their original form, the stories had never been collated together before. (The bumper crop was topped and tailed with the – radically different – original synopsis for a TV episode and a script that was never made).

Together with Ostara editor Mike Ripley and several other dedicated fans, I’d found some of them. At 25, we thought that had to be it, but were delighted when another 15 surfaced, partly as the result of research for The Callan File: The Definitive Guide to the Classic Spy Franchise. A second Callan omnibus was a given, this time enlarged by two scripts for the TV series that no longer exist in the ITV archive.

Volume 2 is the more fascinating, as it chronicles the beginning of the Express short story range in 1970, when Callan had only been on television for two years and would continue for two more. The 1969 Callan novel A Magnum for Schneider had shown the character to be as at home on the page as the TV screen and, even if 1970’s five condensed thrillers show Mitchell finding his style in the short story format, they do deliver two classics every bit as bleak and brutal as the TV episodes.

File on a Faithful Husband finds Callan orchestrating the death of Dekker, a hit man deeply in love with his wife, who the British agent has planned to be found dead in a prostitute’s room, a scheme designed to humiliate Dekker in his final moments and emotionally destroy his wife. The story is extremely disturbing, particularly in the scene where the opposition killer begs Callan for mercy. File on a Loving Sister is equally and rewardingly downbeat. Ordered to form a romantic attachment with Enid Matthews, the sister of a traitor, so her brother Frank can be caught, Callan tragically falls for Enid, knowing their relationship will end when he engineers Frank’s capture. Even at this early stage in the range, Mitchell was delivering some typically earthy, eloquent prose that raised his Callan adventures well above the routine: ‘This girl needed love. She had given for too long.’

From File on a Chinese Hostess published in 1971 the stories had a bigger word count, allowing free reign to Mitchell’s innovative plotting, terse, laconic description and a Callan completely at one with his TV incarnation: tough, intelligent, bullying and unpleasant, tempered by a charismatic, dour harm. One of the highlights of the short stories – as in the TV series and novels – are the scenes between Callan and his petty thief, body odour-suffering contact ‘Lonely’. He has plenty of good moments here, from improbably acting as chauffer to an African diplomat to devouring a cordon bleu meal during a burglary.

This collection, written while Mitchell was still working on the TV series, is my favourite, as not only do the stories avoid being formulaic – unlike some written between 1973 and 1976 – but they accurately capture the ethical contradictions of Callan and the world he inhabits, as well as being shot through with mordant humour. File on a Willing Victim and File on a Deadly Doctor are two of the finest Callan stories in any medium, while File on a Gallic Charmer has one of the franchise’s funniest scenes. 

As Lonely would say: ‘Nice one, Mr Callan.’

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