James Mitchell (1926-2002) is best remembered as the creator of the superb 1960s British spy television series Callan. Mitchell was also a novelist and in 1964 he had created another morally ambiguous spy hero, John Craig, who first appeared in his novel The Man Who Sold Death. The novel was published in 1964 (using the pseudonym James Munro) but is set a few years earlier.
There are interesting similarities, and equally interesting differences, between Mitchell’s two fictional spies. Both are ex-military men. Both are capable of ruthlessness. Both have consciences, an unfortunate failing that causes them some trouble. Neither could be described as a team player.
John Craig though is an ex-officer with a distinguished record while David Callan is an ex-corporal who was cashiered. It is worth pointing out though that Craig started out as an enlisted man. Craig has been a success in business. He has a comfortable house, he has a wife and he drives flash motor. He dresses expensively and can now pass (with reasonable success) as middle-class. Whatever his other talents Callan is never going to pass as middle-class.
Callan is an outsider. He works for a shadowy British intelligence agency as an assassin, not because he likes it but because he has no choice and in any case killing is the only thing he’s good at. John Craig started life as an outsider, worked his way up to respectability and social acceptance, and now finds himself an outsider once more. His past has caught up with him.
In a rather spectacular way. His car is blown up. Someone wants to kill him. They want to kill him very badly. It’s obvious from the start that Craig has a fair idea who is after him, and that they are very dangerous indeed. They’d have to be dangerous to frighten John Craig. And he is certainly frightened.
Another parallel between Craig and Callan is that both have criminal pasts. Craig’s criminal career was distinctly less seedy and on a rather more spectacular scale, and was a good deal more successful. Callan ended up in prison; Craig ended up with a great deal of money. Craig’s criminality was however rather more sleazy and certainly more evil. After the war he became a smuggler and them moved into a much more lucrative trade - gun-running. Unfortunately he chose to run guns to the rebels (or freedom-fighters or terrorists depending on your point of view) in Algeria. This earned him the enmity of a French paramilitary group opposed to Algerian independence (this group being obviously based on the Organisation de l'armée secrète) and as a result he and his partners in the gun-running operation were marked for death by this organisation’s execution squad headed by Colonel St Briac. The leader of this group, They have been searching for him and now they have clearly found him.
John Craig decides to run but he has also attracted the attention of the British counter-intelligence services. Loomis, the head of Department K, is very interested indeed in John Craig. Department K is an ultra-secret branch of MI6, tasked with carrying out operations too dirty for anyone else to touch (it is in all essentials identical to The Section in Callan). Loomis believes John Craig may be just the man he wants for a very special job. The British government has become very concerned by Colonel St Briac’s activities. St Briac wants to get Britain embroiled in the Algerian crisis and that is the last thing Her Majesty’s government wants. The British government wants Colonel St Briac to go away. Officially of course they can do nothing but that’s where Loomis comes in - his job is to make problems like Colonel St Briac go away. Permanently. Loomis has a number of men who are quite skilled assassins but for this job he needs someone very very special. Someone like Craig, who gained a reputation in the elite Special Boat Service as a man who could kill quickly, quietly and very efficiently.
Loomis wants St Briac dead. Craig has realised that the only hope for his own survival is to kill St Briac. It is therefore not too difficult for Loomis to recruit Craig.
The difficulty is that St Briac is absolutely obsessive about security. His headquarters is like a fortress. Getting close enough to kill him will be a challenge; getting out alive afterwards will be a much greater challenge.
This book belongs very much to the gritty realist school of espionage fiction. The problem with the gritty realist approach is that it can easily become simply too grim and too cynical. Mitchell solves this problem in The Man Who Sold Death the same way he would later solve it in Callan - by creating extremely complex characters and presenting them with very complicated moral dilemmas. Mitchell’s protagonists are neither conventional heroes nor conventional anti-heroes. They are a mixture of good and bad, of heroism and cynicism, of honour and moral squalor. They make mistakes and they often dislike their jobs, but they also realise that however unpleasant their jobs may be they are necessary. They are violent ruthless men but they are needed to protect society from men who are far more violent and far more ruthless. Good and evil are never clear-cut or simple concepts for Mitchell but they do still exist, even if sometimes it’s more a choice of lesser evils.
John Craig can be considered to be quite a successful creation - we might not approve of him or even like him very much but we do care what happens to him. It’s actually his flaws that make him oddly sympathetic - they make him human and vulnerable.
The novel’s only real weakness is that the supporting characters lack the richness that made Callan so fascinating. Mitchell was still learning his craft but he proved to be a quick learner.
The Man Who Sold Death is a fine espionage thriller. It has the atmosphere of betrayal and disillusionment that was so fashionable in 1960s spy fiction but without pushing these elements so far that the reader ceases to care about the characters. It also has a good deal of violence and some pretty effective action sequences. It’s well-crafted and entertaining. Highly recommended.