Originally (and subsequently) published under the title A Magnum for Schneider, this book is Callan creator James Mitchell’s first adaptation of the popular late-60s / early-70s TV series. It is an adaptation of his script for the TV play A Magnum for Schneider, which acted as an unofficial pilot for Callan and was also later adapted for the movie version of the show. Released at the height of Callan’s popularity on TV, this Corgi edition is one of several versions released under the title Red File for Callan.
For those of you not familiar with Callan, it was a long-running spy series that eschewed the glamour of James Bond in favour of the grim reality of the British secret service. Callan is an assassin, simple as, but the profession does not sit easily with him. Although distinctly more working class than his superior Hunter and his public-school educated colleague Toby Meres, he’s probably more thoughtful and intelligent than both of them. His only real friend is Lonely, a low-rent fence with a personal hygiene problem. Lonely might not be everyone’s idea of perfect company, but he’s the only person that Callan really trusts in a back-stabbing world where life is cheap and loyalties are flexible.
In Red File for Callan, government assassin David Callan is pulled out of enforced retirement to dispose of an arms dealer called Schneider, whose activities have been judged a threat to British interests abroad. The problem is Callan quite likes Schneider; they have a shared interest in military history and a love of collecting model soldiers. As he investigates the gun-runner prior to taking his life, Callan comes dangerously close to becoming friends with him. It doesn’t help that Callan deeply resents his manipulative Government paymasters and is uncertain whether he wants to go back to his old job.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that Hunter mistrusts Callan and has him followed everywhere, he also attracts the attention of a local gangster called The Greek, from whom he purchases an unlicensed handgun. Unfortunately for The Greek, he mistakes Callan for a common-or-garden criminal and tries to blackmail him, with unfortunate consequences. Red File for Callan explores the entire spectrum of the underworld in not-so-swinging 60s London, from the petty thief Lonely, through the ambitious thug The Greek, to the amoral Hunter and Meres, who would consider themselves the ‘good guys’ even though they’re prepared to resort to blackmail, torture and murder to achieve their goals.
This is a world in which no one really trusts anyone else – and with good reason, because betrayal and double-cross is everywhere. The closest that Callan comes to a real friend is Lonely, with whom he once shared a prison cell. Callan likes him partly because he’s closer to his own working class background, but mainly because Lonely is the only person he can really trust. Their relationship is complex; Callan is hard on Lonely, but only because he has to be to maintain his cover and he always feels bad about it afterwards. Even Lonely thinks that Callan is some kind of gangster and has no idea that he is a Government assassin.
In the end, invited to Schneider’s house to play war games, Callan almost doesn’t go through with his mission, A mixture of quite liking his target and a growing resentment towards Hunter more or less convinces Callan not to kill Schneider, but the bumbling arrival of Meres blows his cover and forces him to commit to the assassination. The plotline of a spy placed on a mission that he agonises over and then almost doesn’t carry out is a million miles away from the Bonds, the Bournes or even the George Smileys that litter the genre. James Mitchell’s earthy Northern take on the genre (yes, I know it’s set in London, but Mitchell was born in South Shields) is, to this day, almost unique.
Red File for Callan ends with the titular ‘hero’ giving a figurative two-finger salute to his superiors and turning his back on a whole lot of money just to feel in some way clean. He might be a hired killer, but he’s a better human being than either Hunter or Meres. The book was written to be read as a stand-alone, separate from the long-running TV series, so this narrative would suggest that Callan and Hunter part company here. However, James Mitchell wrote another four Callan novels and a whole series of short stories for the Sunday Express.
Like many novels of its era, Red File for Callan is quite brisk, but that doesn’t mean it skimps on the important stuff. Characterisation is always given priority over action, which is only right and proper, because this isn’t a story about shoot-outs and car chases. Guns may be a running theme, from the arms that Schneider deals to the Magnum that Callan purchases to kill him, and Mitchell certainly knows his stuff, but it doesn’t glorify gun use; in fact, they are the root of all misfortune in this novel. Regardless of whether you’ve ever seen the TV series or not, Red File for Callan is an enjoyable and thought-provoking book with more impact almost five decades on than most modern spy thrillers.
This edition of ‘Red File for Callan’ by James Mitchell was published by Corgi Books (1971) and is currently out of print in the UK. It is available under the title ‘A Magnum for Schneider’ from Ostara Publishing.