Book review: Once a Crooked Man by David McCallum is about mistaken identity and its effects

The author delivers the right amount of violence and intrigue in this action-packed tale.

The book cover of Once A Crooked Man, a novel by David McCallum. Minotaur via AP
Powered by automated translation

Once a Crooked Man

David McCallum



David McCallum – yes, actor David McCallum of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sapphire and Steel and NCIS fame — confidently embarks on a second career in this highly entertaining debut, which fuses an espionage novel with a mystery thriller.

McCallum, 82, is no John le Carre. Nor does his Once a Crooked Man hero, Harry Murphy, resemble George Smiley – or, for that matter, U.N.C.L.E.’s Illya Kuryakin, the role that made the Scottish actor famous.

But he respects the genres’ tenets, supplying the right amounts of intrigue and violence for a well-plotted, action-packed tale.

Although he isn’t a household name, Harry has had a decent career as a New York actor — a few TV and film roles, a couple of Broadway plays and lots of voice-over work for adverts. After an audition, he tries to use the toilet in a restaurant in Queens at the same time the three Bruschetti brothers are discussing how to get out of the organised-crime business.

He overhears the brothers plotting to murder someone called Villiers in London — one of those pesky loose ends they need to tie up.

Flush with cash from a mayonnaise commercial, Harry impulsively flies to London where he manages to prevent the murder but is mistaken for a mob enforcer by the criminals and the British police. He has just become part of “the reality show to end all reality shows”.

Fortunately, he has learnt a lot of acting tricks that help him infiltrate the mob.

Once a Crooked Man makes the most of the mistaken-identity scenario as Harry finds great satisfaction in becoming a man of action, forced to work outside his comfort zone, even when the role of a lifetime may end in his death. McCallum populates his novel with all the requisite characters: a female agent who might have ulterior motives; a detective whose sad-sack demeanour disguises his insight; trigger-happy hit men; and realistic criminals who claim to be businessmen but are thugs.

Occasional humour adds levity but McCallum keeps a hard-boiled edge to the story. It seems he had a lot of fun writing Once a Crooked Man, as will his readers devouring his energetic novel.

* The Associated Press