E-files for Callan in 2013/14/...
Since 2013 Ostara Publishing have reprinted the first three Callan novels by James Mitchell as part of their imprint Top Notch Thrillers, which aims to revive Great British thrillers which do not deserve to be forgotten. Each title has been carefully selected not just for its plot or sense of adventure but for the distinctiveness and sheer quality of its writing. This sees the Callan novels enter the 21st century with ebook (Kindle) editions as well as bullet stopping paperbacks.
Top Notch Thrillers imprint editor is Mike Ripley - author of the award-winning 'Angel' comic thrillers, co-editor of the three Fresh Blood anthologies promoting new British crime writing and, for ten years, the crime fiction critic of the Daily Telegraph. He currently writes the 'Getting Away With Murder' column for the e-zine Shots on shotsmag.co.uk - I interviewed Mike to find out more about the imprint and the Callan books in particular...
Daza: Top Notch Thrillers' aims to revive Great British thrillers which do not deserve to be forgotten. That's a great mission statement; who came up with the idea for Top Notch and how hard was it to turn into a reality?
Mike Ripley: I will certainly claim credit for the Mission Statement but the core idea came from Andrew Cocks of Ostara Publishing. Ostara had established a good track record republishing crime novels on a thematic basis - Medieval Mysteries, Clerical Crime, Cambridge Crime and so on - but Andrew felt that he was missing out on the "thriller" genre as opposed to the more traditional crime novel. My name was suggested to him as a potential editor and we knew each other from the 1970s when we both worked at Essex University. When he got in touch in the summer of 2009, I jumped at the opportunity and the first four Top Notch Thrillers appeared that November. To date, we've done 32 titles (with 4 more on the stocks for 2014) and they have ranged from little-known classic examples of the genre - by such authors as Geoffrey Rose, Philip Purser and George Sims - to disgracefully forgotten authors such as Francis Clifford, Berkely Mather and Geoffrey Household, to authors who were huge, international best-sellers in their day, such as Alan Williams, Victor Canning, Adam Hall and Duncan Kyle.
Once we had done our first four titles and had books to show that we could produce a good product and when we said we would (unlike some Print-on-Demand operations), finding titles became a bit easier. Brian Callison's famous WWII thriller "A Flock of Ships" was a great acquisition, as were a brace of Geoffrey Household titles, but I'm probably most proud of the books and authors we have helped to avoid total obscurity, such as John Blackburn, who is now undergoing a bit of a revival in America.
With the introduction of generic eBooking of backlists by publishers and agents, it has become more difficult to pick up titles and I find it very sad that the work of such as Gavin Lyall and that superb craftsman P.M. Hubbard can no longer be found in print as a physical book. Some authors have escaped us either due to agents demanding ridiculous advances (for books which have been out of print for forty years) or the inability to track down the current rights holder where an author is no longer with us.
Mike Ripley: I maintain that the 1960s and 70s were the "golden age" of British thriller writing. It was a time when British authors dominated in international sales, set new standards in research and plotting and whose influence can still be seen today. Some chose to emulate the exotic James Bond thrillers (seen as the benchmark of success) or put a new take on them - Adam Hall's Quiller was in effect an emotionless upgrade of Bond; John Gardner's Boysie Oakes was a tongue-in-cheek spoof of 007.
James Mitchell's David Callan went the other way. He was a ferociously downbeat character and in the best Shakespearean sense, a truly tragic anti-hero. How brilliant was it that Callan's only friend was called Lonely? He was also, unusually for the time, very much a working-class hero; someone who had come up from the ranks rather than be born into the officer class.
Daza: Yes, even though Callan is a powerful character spy-craft/street smarts wise, he is powerless when it comes to controlling his own destiny.
Mike Ripley: Exactly, which makes him a truly "noir" character and a tragic hero in the Shakespearean sense... Others writers had explored this trait [class] - Len Deighton's "Harry Palmer" character and Andrew York's Jason ('The Eliminator') Wilde for example. But where "Harry Palmer" was a reflection of the classless and fashionable Sixties London scene and Jason Wilde clearly emulated the fantasy Bond lifestyle, Callan eschewed style and fashion and was the perfect anti-Bond. Our perceptions of the character are necessarily coloured by the superb performances of Edward Woodward, but the Callan novels stand up as superb examples of spare, nihilistic writing in the "noir" tradition and in British terms, rank alongside Ted Lewis' classic Get Carter.
Right: James Mitchell and his wife Delia with Woodward on the set of the movie Callan in 1974 - Image (c) Peter Mitchell, via Ostara website.
Daza: I see you have the first of John Gardner's Boysie Oakes in the imprint as well, surprising to think that it would have fallen out of print what with Gardner's work on the official Bond sequel novels. Was it a hard one to secure for release?
Mike Ripley: We managed to negotiate the TNT edition of The Liquidator just before the reissue of his Bond books, thanks to the help of his son Simon (who is a great supporter of Top Notch Thrillers). Sadly, for us, John Gardner's backlist now seems to be spoken for in publishing terms.
Daza: Was it difficult to obtain the publication rights to the Callan books?
Mike Ripley: Very soon after the Top Notch project got underway, I put the "Callan" books on my mental shopping list but did not give them a high priority as I just assumed they would still be in print somewhere. When some basic research showed they were not readily available, I contacted James Mitchell's son Peter in 2010 and he seemed very enthusiastic but it took another two years to sort out the rights and agree a contract with Ostara. We are delighted to have done two Callans this year and in 2014 we'll do a third, plus a 'John Craig' thriller written under Mitchell's pen-name James Munro.
Daza: With only the one edition ever published of the fifth Callan novel Bonfire Night second hand prices are quite steep for folks who want to read the last instalment. What are the prospects thor this title to join the line?
Mike Ripley: We have no plans at the moment to republish Bonfire Night.
Daza: The book is quite a departure in the series which some fans didn't enjoy - what did you think of it?
Mike Ripley: I have discussed the book with Peter Mitchell, which I was sent for review when it first appeared, though I remember thinking that it did not add to the Callan legend.
Daza: Did you ask if Peter Mitchell had found any previously unknown Callan stories in his father's literary estate?
Mike Ripley: We're hoping to gather and publish (officially!) the Callan short stories and some previously unseen material, but it won't be before the summer. Should know more by mid-April.
Daza: That's great news. Was tying the Callan books directly into the TV series via using photographs of Edward Woodward etc on the covers considered?
Mike Ripley: Yes, briefly. It might have been easier had Edward still been with us, but tracking picture rights is even more difficult than tracing literary rights! The TV series (and DVD editions) stand in their own right, and always will. We wanted to showcase the novels in their own right, though we did, rather cheekily, pay homage to the "swinging light bulb" in the famous title scene.
Daza: What are the influences for the cover designs in the Top Notch imprint?
Mike Ripley: For economy and efficiency, we went for photographic images and, overall, I'm very happy with the way they have turned out. Several, I think, are far superior to the originals and it was particularly pleasing when veteran thriller writer Alan Williams said how much he liked our cover for Snake Water, as he himself designed and painted the dust jacket for the hardback first edition!
Daza: Is having the titles released in ebook format a core part of Top Notch's approach or a sensible add on?
Mike Ripley: These days it is a core part of publishing and hopefully will introduce a new generation of readers to these books and this fabulous character.
Daza: Do have a feel for the age group of the Top Notch readers; is it older fans revisiting favourite authors or new readers?
Mike Ripley: I don't believe there is a set 'demographic' for TNT readers. There are older fans revisiting favourite authors/titles - and many older Kindle users downloading to replace books they've lost - but there are younger readers chasing titles they've seen referred to on the internet, or because they've heard dramatizations on radio. There are also a fair number of readers who much prefer new books to searching out second-hand copies of old titles.
Daza: What are the mechanics of getting the books into print?
Mike Ripley: We digitalise texts and fit them to our adopted house style and we print 'B format&rsq paperbacks rather than the older A format basically because it makes more economic sense for us. (I personally believe it helps the books stand out against conventional paperbacks without being as unwieldy as a Trade Paperback).
Daza: Did James Mitchell create something unique with Callan?
Mike Ripley: Undoubtedly. Callan was a complex, vulnerable character operating in a cynical world. When you find yourself rooting for a character who is, essentially, a ruthless killing machine, then you realise that the creator of such a character has done something special. James Mitchell did just that and he did it without pretention, without psycho-babble or waffle, and without wasting a word.
My thanks to Maike for taking the time to answer my questions. James Mitchell's Death and Bright Water and The Innocent Bystanders (written as 'James Munro') are set to be published in April 2014 by Ostara Publishing as part of the Top Notch Thrillers imprint.
A Magnum for Schneidner - James Mitchell
Schneider. 'He has to die,' said Hunter, 'and you may be the man for the job.' 'What's he done?' 'That is the second time you have asked that question. It isn't your concern. Your business is execution and nothing else - not clouding your mind with reason and explanation. Do as you're told and do it without question. Or get out now. He's in a red file, Callan. That's reason enough.' 'All right,' said Callan. 'All right.' Paperback and ebook.
Size: 216 X 140
Price: £ 10.99
Russian Roulette - James Mitchell
Hunter said, 'They made a try last night.' 'A try?' said Meres. 'They didn't succeed?' 'Far from it,' Hunter said. 'It was something of a fiasco, I'm afraid. Callan killed one of them - and both their dogs.' 'He did that without a gun?' 'Certainly,' said Hunter. 'He's very able you know.' Paperback and ebook.
Size: 216 X 140
Price: £ 10.99
Death and Bright Water - James Mitchell
Callan, the most ruthlessly efficient member of British Intelligence's own assassination bureau known only as The Section, had made many deadly enemies within Moscow's KGB. So why were they now recommending him for job? It's not a job Callan wants, he just wants to get out of the whole sordid business, but if he doesn't take the job - rescuing a radical Greek politician's daughter from her kidnappers on Crete - then Callan might just find himself in one of the Section's infamous Red Files. 'I'm finished with you,' said Callan. 'Finished with the Section. You know that.' 'Nobody's ever completely finished with me,' said Hunter. First published in 1974, this was the third full-length Callan novel by his creator James Mitchell, back in print for the first time in 38 years.
Size: 216 X 140
Price: £ 10.99
Ostara hopes to reissue the final two Callan novels - Smear Job and Bonfire Night - in 2016.
Check out Ostara Publishing's biography page for James Mitchell.