Friday, May 04, 2012


The Payoff by Don Smith

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at well-known writer Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews at her blog.

I have a simple formula for deciding whether or not to read a book I have never heard of — I check out the picture on the front cover and the blurb on the back cover and if I like one or the other, or both, I go ahead and read the novel. So far it has worked for me.

It happened with The Payoff by Don Smith which I found under a pile of secondhand paperbacks. I knew I was going to read the book as soon as I pulled it out. As you can see, the cover is striking and the illustration smacks of corporate crime while the blurb on the back cover only hastened my decision to pick up the novel. It read...

"I've hit you three times and I'll go on hitting you unless you pay me two million dollars. If you discuss this with the police or the FBI you lose another plane..."

In addition, The Payoff was a Fawcett publication and Fawcett books rarely disappoint.

Now, you could write your own story with a blurb like that, but before you do, let's hear Don Smith's story first — it's his book.

Tim Parnell is trying to catch "trout" from a garbage can lying bottom side up in his office in Amsterdam airport when Bill Stanford, executive vice-president of Pan World Airways, hires him to investigate the mysterious bombing of three PWA planes followed by a two-million dollar ransom note.

The American detective's appearance doesn't inspire Standford's confidence — big frame, no tie, unbuttoned shirt, tousled hair, and fly casting at three o'clock in the afternoon. The former CIA agent is the best investigator of airline crimes and that's what a desperate Stanford needs to save his airline company.

"There was only one man in the world who had a prayer of doing that, and he was in Amsterdam. Tim Parnell. International private eye. If anyone could put a crimp in the Mafia's new sky-jack extortion game, it was Parnell..."

Parnell takes up the case, for a tidy fee and an all-expense account, because he provides good value for good money and because he knows where and how to find the hoods who are bombing planes with no passengers in them. The sleuth wastes no time in getting on the trail of the blackmailers whose tentacles are spread across America and Europe. He does so by accompanying Stanford on his first "drop" of ransom money somewhere between Zurich and Brussels.

The story then moves back and forth between Monte Carlo, Geneva, Marseilles, New York, Paris and Amsterdam as the hard-nosed detective with a predilection for taking risks discovers a caboodle of gangsters — American mafia led by the mastermind, the son of an NY don, and a big-time Italian drug runner — are behind the ransom caper. 

Even as Parnell gathers clinching evidence against the hoods, with help from a French private detective and an ex-cop, Standford, who has hired him on the sly, takes him off the case. The ransom has been paid and no more PWA planes have been bombed.

But the American detective continues his investigations, with what's left of the unaccounted fee from Stanford, because he realises that the people who bombed Pan World Airways planes will soon pick another target. They pick Lufthansa...and Parnell closes in. In the end Parnell, with a bit of smart thinking, is richer by the millions and a broad he has grown fond of.

The Payoff is a racy novel in the mould of a James Hadley Chase. There is never a dull moment in the 191-page turner which was published in 1973. It’s a predictable storyline but Don Smith tells it well. I recommend it if you have nothing better to read. 

There is very little about Don Smith and his other works on the internet, though I found something else. Private Eyes 101 Knights: A Survey of American detective Fiction 1922-1984 by Robert A. Baker and Michael T. Nietzel (1985), among other interesting things, briefly discusses the number of American detectives like Tim Parnell who have moved abroad to practice their investigative work. Don Smith has written books featuring Parnell — The Man Who Played Thief (1971), The Padrone (1971) and Corsican Takeover (1973) — as well as about a secret agent, Phil Sherman, who has featured in 16 secret missions.


  1. Great stuff Prashant and good that you point to the way that international travel in the 70s seemed so sexy as to became its own kind of selling point in thrillers. Of course you know it's a bygone era when PAN WORLD AIRWAYS sounded like a plausible name for a fictitious airline ...

  2. I tried your two rules for reading a book for a while. Although the cover art is spectacular and hints at excitement the story usually it pales in comparison to the story. That doesn't stop me from buying a book for the cover art alone. I still do that. I have found that blurb writing, especially 1950s blurbs on PI and action style thrillers, leaves a lot to be desired when reflecting the actual content of the book. I try not to be swayed by some marketing department's promises of what awaits me inside the covers. Hyperbole or utter lies tend to be the norm.

    Never heard of this writer. I'll add him to the list of PI writers I want to sample. I like the globetrotting books of this sort.

  3. Thanks, Sergio. I see flaws in my reviews through the educated comments I receive including yours. I wrote this review in a hurry to meet the deadline but that's no excuse for not mentioning the bombing of empty planes in a 1973 novel in the context of 9/11 nearly thirty years later. The plot to bomb planes and hold airlines to ransom might have been a convincing reality at the time but I don't see it happening in this day.

  4. John, thanks for your comments. I have been following the twin rules for some years now and it has introduced me to all kinds of authors whose books I might have otherwise missed. I agree: great cover art does not always reflect the story inside but it's something I'm not too particular about. I still buy books if I like the covers and I usually end up liking the story as well; and sometimes I force myself to like the books I read. The blurbs in early books, however exaggerated, were better than what you get today. They were bombastic but effective.

    Don smith's detective Tim Parnell is quite ruthless in his own way, especially when he goes about disposing of bodies of men he didn't kill, like an everyday chore. And he's pretty lecherous, too, though he is seen to be caring for his women. There's not much globetrotting even if Parnell moves through half a dozen cities in Europe; everything happens too fast. I am now looking out for his other books.

  5. I always pay attention to the blurb in deciding what to read. I also go by genre, depending on which one I'm interested in at the time, and then I read the first couple of paragraph.

  6. Charles, I'm currently reading paperbacks, novellas and short stories from early 1900 to, say, 1980, particularly war, science fiction, western, mystery/thriller, and horror/fantasy, and the blurb is a sound guide. I rarely read the first few paragraphs and usually plunge right into the book.