Colonel Charles Russell

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(CC) Photo: Clayton Evans
William Haggard on the back cover of The Conspirators, 1967

Colonel Charles Michael Russell, generally known as Colonel Russell, is a retired Anglo-Irish British army officer created by the British thriller writer William Haggard who, after World War II, becomes head of an unobtrusive but occasionally lethal British counter-intelligence agency called the Security Executive, where he moves easily and gracefully along C.P. Snow's Corridors of Power in Whitehall. The Executive, clearly based on the actual MI5 or Security Service, figures in 21 novels featuring Russell and in four others in which Russell is not a character. Haggard himself, who had served at least for a while as an Intelligence Officer during the War, called it "not entirely imaginary". Superbly urbane, Russell is presented throughout the series as an "unapologetic" Establishment conservative but, perhaps because of his part-Irish heritage, is far from being a racist: in at least one of his books, he hopes that a Black "operator" of the Executive, William Wilberforce Smith, will become its head.

Background and appearance

We learn in Slow Burner, the first Russell book, that he is somewhere in his fifties and unmarried. By the second book, he says he is sixty and we are told he is about to retire. In the third book, however, no further mention is made of retirement and he remains sixty or "rising sixty" for the next four books. He has "a decoration that he had won in battle"[1] He has never married but "not that he'd lived celibate—no, indeed...." He is "not particularly tall" but "his stride was an inch or two longer than the average, an inch or two longer than an infantryman of the line would have felt comfortable". In spite of his age, his golf handicap is two, and he has fairly recently competed in the British Amateur golf championship. "As a younger man, he had [also] driven in competitions" and still drives fast but safely. He is soldierly but slightly donnish. [2] He has "bright blue eyes"[3] and an abundant and admirably attended mustache. "By the standards of conformity" his office furnishings and decorations are an eclectic mix and somewhat untidy, a "scandal": there are Benares brass, silver trophies, and excellent Persian rugs. He belongs to Bratt's Club,to which John Beaver in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, also belonged. It is a "decidedly uppity place" with old-fashioned customs, antique waiters, and no bar—for gentlemen don't drink at bars.

Character and idiosyncrasies

"He was a churchgoer by mild conviction, but not a moralist." His vicar is a High Churchman, whom he finds extremely boring.[4] He drinks sherry or whisky and soda before lunch and might have some port before going to an important early afternoon meeting, but more to delay his arrival than because he wants or needs it. "...champagne didn't agree with him... but he seldom declined it.[5] He smokes a pipe, cigarettes, and an occasional cigar but by the 21st book he has apparently given up smoking. If he is too busy to go out for lunch he might have sherry and biscuits in his office.[6]. He says that he "an indifferent bridge player"[7] but is pleased that he can "remember a little Latin" from Martial.[8]

Regarding his character and abilities, his Minister, Gabriel Pallister, who is Secretary of the Home Office, says (while ruefully contemplating a possible replacement) that Russell:

was something special. He had it both ways: he ran the machine, and ran it beautifully—the files, the dossiers, the interminable cross-checking. All that is essential, it's nine-tenths of the job, and it wouldn't be difficult to find a man to carry it. But it's the other tenth, nowadays, that counts in the pinches, and for that Russell had a flair. A nose. He smelt things...Colonel Russell is... something exceptional. He has a nose for the suspect but he detests suspicion; he's a humanist, a liberal in the oldest, best sense... you can't trust many when it comes to that sort of power.[9]

A few books later Russell is in his office at the Security Executive considering a potentially explosive document:

He was perfectly aware that possession of this paper would, if discovered, cost him his job in hours, but he had spent half a lifetime in work where to do it properly he must be ready to see his head drop. And never to complain of it. He knew the law, he respected the law, but he bent it unhesitatingly when his country's interests dictated.[10]

Perhaps because of his Army background, to help his thinking about a problem he may write an Appreciation of the situation in longhand, arranging everything into neat categories. In many of his books, his chief assistant, whom he trusts implicitly, is the "invaluable" Major Robert Mortimer. But unusually for a senior official dealing frequently with other officials and their policies that can impede his job, "malice or resentment were emotions unknown to him... he was aware that he had an excellent brain... lucid, even a little elegant. But [on this important occasion in Slow Burner] quite, quite wrong. And Mortimer had been entirely right... In his mental register [Russell] entered the matter as Lesson Learned; he entered it to the already formidable credit of Experience."[11]

Colonel Charles Russell series

  1. Slow Burner (1958)
  2. Venetian Blind (1959)
  3. The Arena (1961)
  4. The Unquiet Sleep (1962)
  5. The High Wire (1963)
  6. The Antagonists (1964)
  7. The Powder Barrel (1965)
  8. The Hard Sell (1965)
  9. The Power House (1966)
  10. The Conspirators (1967)
  11. A Cool Day for Killing (1968)
  12. The Hardliners (1970)
  13. The Bitter Harvest (1971) aka Too Many Enemies
  14. The Old Masters (1973) aka The Notch on the Knife
  15. The Scorpion's Tail (1975)
  16. Yesterday's Enemy (1976)
  17. The Poison People (1977)
  18. Visa to Limbo (1978)
  19. The Median Line (1979)
  20. The Money Men (1981)
  21. The Mischief Makers (1982)
  22. The Heirloom (1983)
  23. The Need To Know (1984)
  24. The Meritocrats (1985)
  25. The Vendettists (1990)


  • Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, Chris Steinbrunner and Otto Penzler, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York, 1976, ISBN 0-07-061121-1
  • Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by John M. Reilly, St. Martins Press, New York, 1980, ISBN 0-312-82417-3
  • Who's Who in Spy Fiction, Donald McCormick, Sphere Books Limited, London, 1979


  1. The Unquiet Sleep, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England, paperback edition, 1966, page 72
  2. Venetian Blind, A Signet Book, The New American Library, New York, paperback edition, First Printing, November, 1963, page 34
  3. The Unquiet Sleep, op.cit. page 70
  4. Venetian Blind, op.cit. page 64
  5. Venetian Blind, op.cit. page 54
  6. Venetian Blind, op.cit. page 63
  7. The Unquiet Sleep, op.cit. page 61
  8. The Unquiet Sleep, op.cit. page 71
  9. Venetian Blind, op. cit. pages 12-13
  10. The Powder Barrel, A Signet Book, The New American Library, New York, paperback edition, First Printing, September, 1966, page 46
  11. Slow Burner, A Signet Book, The New American Library, New York, paperback edition, First Printing, October, 1965, pages 135-136

See also