Don Smith's The Man Who Played Thief (1969) is, to some degree, a fairly conventional adventure thriller from the period. Tim Parnell is an ex-CIA man and international private eye. He's currently down on his luck: playing poker with pilots for his last $36, his lovely girlfriend having left him in London for a man with a bigger bankroll. Opportunity knocks in the form of a desperate British insurance company. They're the (indirect) victims of a diamond heist. Although Scotland Yard has the criminals in custody, the diamonds remain lost. If Tim can find them, he'll get his 10% - more than enough to pay his rent and win back the girl.
With a certain perverse logic, Tim leaps into criminality. He springs one of the thieves from prison, then trails him across Europe - eventually winding up in the sultry Côte d'Azure. Tim shags, shoots and sneaks his away up the criminal ladder in a variety of set-piece scenes: the high-stakes-gambling, the attending-the-evil-mastermind's-sumptuous-house-party, the captured-by-the-enemy and the framed-for-murder. Like its predecessors in the genre, there are Good Girls and Bad Girls, all of whom invariably fall for Tim's roguish charms.
It isn't to say that The Man Who Played Thief is boring, far from it. Don Smith rather cleverly sets up the hierarchy of criminality - giving the impression that there's a great game going on, and Tim is entering about halfway through. There's also a thinly-veiled contempt when it comes to the decadence of the Mediterranean atmosphere. Tim, broke, is able to pass as a playboy with only a nice set of clothes. (At one point, he deliberates between 'sneaking' or 'brazening it out', and chooses the latter: a microcosm for the book as a whole.) The rich and ultra-rich are no different from the rest of us, but for their money. And Tim can take their things: their money and their women – he even raids the buffet. There's a sneering superiority to his actions that's All-American, as he scrapes off the shiny gilt of Old Europe with his blue collar thumbnail.
Our collection of Gold Medals is stocked with macho manly-men who scamper across the Mediterranean, shagging beauties and thwarting vaguely Communist evil. Obviously, James Bond has a lot to answer for, but it is hard not to wonder about the larger social context. One theory: by the 1960s, the WWII veterans were well-settled back in Columbus, having traded the horrors of war for jobs, 2.7 children and a mortgage or two. Europe becomes many things: nostalgic, exotic, and very, very far from Ohio.
Of course, by 1969, the readership could well have been the Baby Boomers themselves. The ones that didn't go to Europe and have spent their life in Columbus and listening to the stories. At the time, "overseas" in the news meant the quagmire of Vietnam or the budding apocalypse of the Iron Curtain. But Western Europe - the stomping ground for so many of these adventures - is a red-blooded fairyland, filled with adventure. The land of their fathers' heroism, and a hotbed of intrigue. Tim's brash, "anything you can do,..." approach could be a perfect reflection of this opportunistic attitude.
Finally, it is hard to see a 1969 adventure story outside of the content of the Vietnam War. European espionage is the clean fight: James Bond battling Communism on baccarat tables, not in the jungle. These books make escapist heroes: men who fight the Evil Empire by shagging Italian debutantes and wearing fine suits. They allow the reader a guilt-free fantasy. "I'd be useless with an M-16," the secret agent declared, as he poured another martini and cast his eye over the nude models beckoning from the hot tub, "but I think I've found a way to serve my country."
Although Don Smith carefully keeps the action within the bounds of Western Europe, it is telling that The Man Who Played Thief's ultimate villain is the book's one Asian character: the sinister Javanese woman. She's also the book's one character who doesn't subscribe to the polite point-and-counter-point of international thievery. She's wanton, random and self-absorbed: unpredictable because her crimes are rooted in emotion and not greed. How can you deal with people like that? They don't play by the rules.
Tim Parnell clearly resonated with the readers, as he wound up fighting the good fight in several more novels through the early 1970s. Matt Helm, Sam Durrell, Chester Drum - even James Bond - weren't just interesting for their individual adventures, but how the tone of those adventures changed with the international context. The Man Who Played Thief on its own is merely a snapshot, but it is an intriguing one, and I look forward to seeing how (or if) Tim Parnell evolves over time. The things I do for my country...