The U.K. television series “Callan” lasted for four seasons between 1967 and 1972 on Thames Television. The series creator was James Mitchell (1926-2002) who also authored five books and several short stories starring his government assassin character, David Callan. The first paperback in the series from 1969 was originally titled “A Magnum for Schneider” and was re-issued as “A Red File for Callan.” If you’re looking for a copy, check under both titles, and you’ll probably have some luck.
The setup is that Callan is an assassin for a shadowy government intel agency accepting his assignments from an enigmatic, bureaucratic handler. If this sounds familiar, it’s pretty much the same premise as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series. Helm answers to Mac, and Callan takes orders from Hunter. And just like the Helm series, “Red File for Callan” begins after the main character has been away from the killing game for awhile and is pressed into service by his boss as a contractor of sorts. However, outside of the org chart similarities, the character of Callan isn’t much like Helm at all.
Callan’s hang-up is that he wants to know why Hunter orders the target killed. Hunter wants Callan to simply follow orders and put a bullet between the bloke’s eyes. This drives Hunter crazy and was the reason Callan left the agency before his provisional return at the beginning of this story. It’s Hunter who decides who merits a red file (meaning: targeted for death), and Callan is simply the weapon tasked with carrying out the hit without a lot of messy questions. Callan is also more pensive and thoughtful than most fictional government assassins. Killing seems to be his only marketable skill, but he doesn’t relish the act. He’s a worrier with a big conscience.
For this return to government work, Callan’s target is Rudolf Schneider, a tough and shrewd German businessman living in London with a love of military history, a sense of humor, and an air of danger surrounding him. Because of his personal ethics, Callan must investigate to learn what Schneider has done to merit a red folder. If Schneider deserves to die, Callan will pull the trigger. If not, then no deal. This dynamic turns the novel into an interesting hybrid between a mystery with a puzzle to be solved and later a thriller with a government agent on a mission.
A fair amount of the book’s first half is designed to present Callan’s origin story - as a commando, as a thief, as a prisoner, and as an assassin. There’s not a ton of action, but there is way more character development than other 1969 paperbacks of this ilk. It also must have been a pain in the ass to acquire a handgun in London 50 years ago because an inordinate amount of the book’s first half is spent trying to score a weapon. After about 90 pages of setup, the plot moves forward considerably.
Mitchell was a good writer, but “Red File For Callan” was a pretty slow read. It sets up the characters and setting very well, but it was all a bit of a snooze. That said, I’m glad I read it because people in-the-know tell me the second book, “Russian Roulette” is much better. Moreover, the short stories in the “Callan Uncovered” compilations are allegedly sheer masterpieces. I think the forced economy of a short story would work very well for this character, and I pledge to dive back into Callan’s world with his anthologies.
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