James Mitchell was a very successful television writer, best known as the creator of the best TV spy series ever made, Callan. Mitchell also wrote espionage thrillers. He wrote a series of spy novels under the name James Munro and under his own name wrote several Callan novels. Russian Roulette, published in 1973, was the second of his Callan novels and it’s just a little disappointing.
David Callan works for the Section, a small ultra-secret branch of the British Intelligence services. The Section does the jobs that are too dirty for any other intelligence agency to handle - blackmail, intimidation and on occasion assassination. Callan is the Section’s top operative. He is a very efficient killer. The problem is that Callan has started to develop a conscience.
Callan has a big problem. He is having eyesight difficulties, difficulties that can be temporarily alleviated by eye drops that will very soon require an operation. The operation has a good chance of being successful but in the meantime an even bigger problem has arisen for him. Callan’s boss, referred to only by his code-name Hunter, has done a particularly dirty deal with the KGB. In exchange for the return of a very important British spy recently captured by the KGB Hunter has agreed to allow the KGB to kill Callan (which is something the KGB is very very keen to do). Hunter informs Callan that he is now out of the Section and that the Soviets have despatched their three best assassins to kill him. Hunter has made things easy for the KGB. They have been told where to find Callan, he has had his assets frozen so that he has no money, his passport and his gun have been seized and steps have been to ensure that no-one will dare to sell him a gun legally or illegally.
Callan is now not only a hunted man, he is a hunted man with no chance of survival.
My first reservation about this book is the basic premise. It just isn’t logical. Intelligence agencies may get up to all sorts of dirty tricks (often very dirty indeed) but selling out their own agents in this manner just doesn’t make sense. They would very quickly find themselves without any operatives.
There are other problems with the book. You would think that a novel would offer more opportunities than a TV series to develop characters in depth. That’s exactly what MItchell tries to do, but paradoxically it makes the principal characters less interesting. In the TV series the emotions and motivations of the characters (especially David Callan himself) are conveyed to the viewer, with extraordinary skill, by means of hints and suggestions. In this novel Mitchell makes the mistake of simply telling us what the characters think and feel rather than allowing their words and actions to reveal these things to us. In the TV series it’s obvious that the Section’s number two operative, the smoothly sinister Toby Meres, regards Callan with a complex mixture of admiration, fear, contempt and jealousy. These things are never spelled out - the viewer picks them up gradually through various subtle suggestions. In the novel Mitchell spells these things out very crudely right at the start and as a result the reader is going to find the character to be of no further interest. We already know everything important about him.
Mitchell makes the same mistake, more disastrously, with David Callan. Rather than having Callan’s feelings and motivations slowly revealed he tells us straight-out what makes the character tick. He makes a further error by making Callan not just a killer with a conscience but much too touchy-feely and it isn’t quite convincing.
There’s also an attempt to explore in much greater depth the odd friendship between Callan and the cowardly but extremely useful small-time burglar Lonely. Unfortunately this friendship ends up being a lot less fascinating than it is in the TV series. Mitchell also makes Lonely less interesting by making him a lot less cringing and cowardly.
Reading this book has led me to the conclusion that the success of the TV series may have been mostly due to the superb acting of Edward Woodward, Anthony Valentine and Russell Hunter.
The plot has some flaws as well. The twists are too predictable.
The 1960s had seen spy fiction move in a much more cynical and even nihilistic direction and Russian Roulette reflects this trend towards bleakness.
If you’re a fan of the Callan TV series might come away from this novel feeling somewhat let down. It simply isn’t up to the standard of the TV series. My disappointment may have been partly due to the fact that certain key elements are handled in a slightly different way compared to the series and I feel the series did these things more successfully. It might sound like I’m doing a hatchet job on the novel which would be a bit unfair. It has its merits. The action scenes are imaginative and handled extremely well, especially the construction site ambush.
Perhaps I was just expecting too much. Russian Roulette isn’t a bad spy novel and it’s worth a look.