Monday, March 20, 2017

A Friendly Place To Die


A Friendly Place To Die, by Michael P. Faur, Jr.
December, 1966  Signet Books

Signet Books really cornered the market on spy series fiction in the ‘60s, no doubt because they’d scored a coup with the paperback rights to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. It would appear that this obscure one-shot novel was intended as the start of yet another Signet spy series, but for some unknown reason it never got beyond this initial book. This is unfortunate, as in many ways A Friendly Place To Die provides almost a swinging ‘60s spy variation of later men’s adventure series like The Destroyer, at least so far as its almost godlike kung-fu practicing protagonist goes.

Another mystery is who the author, Michael P. Faur, Jr, was. According to the Catalog Of Copyright Entries, it was apparently a real person (ie Faur isn’t a pseudonym or house name), but nothing else seems to have been published by him. A Google search reveals nothing save for an archived news story from December 1975 about a person of the same name being arrested for “issuing worthless checks” at clothing stores in Alabama. The article refers to this Michael P. Faur, Jr as an “Oxford concert promoter,” aged 37, who refused to “furnish background information on himself…because it was of a confidential nature.” Hmmm!

If this is the same Faur as the author of A Friendly Place To Die, then that would mean he was the young age of 26 or so when he published the book. This is interesting, as there is a weariness and wisdom to the novel and its characters that you wouldn’t expect from someone so young. (Barring of course a hippie of the day.) Cord, the hero of the book (no first name given), is in his 30s but acts more like an ancient and wise practicioner of the martial arts, thanks to the decade he spent in a secret temple in mainland China. When we meet him, Cord has finally escaped Red China and is in Mexico, about to sneak across the border into the US; this will be the first time he’s been here since the Korean War, over a decade ago.

Cord’s mysterious history is sprinkled throughout the first quarter of the book. Faur walks an interesting line, having a protagonist who is a bit of a cipher, while at the same time making that protagonist the hero of the book, with most of the narrative filtered through his thoughts. Thus the tantalizing bit on the back cover that Cord might not even be Cord is a bit ruined, as there’s no question for the reader that this is the same man who, a decade before, was captured during the fighting in Korea, later escaped from a POW camp, and after that was captured again in China during a failed cross-country escape attempt. But he escaped yet again, only to be saved by the monks of that kung-fu temple, who spent the next decade training Cord in all manner of knowledge, from the martial arts to languages to philosophy.

Cord is an okay character, if a bit too pragmatic and omniscient. He also uses a lot of annoying Britishisms, from “ruddy” to “bloody;” Faur briefly explains this as an after-effect of Cord spending so long among a people who learned their English in the, well, English idiom, rather than the American. Personally I don’t like an American hero who says “Bloody hell;” it just seems wrong on so many levels. Otherwise Cord is a cigarette-smoking, ruggedly-handsome type of protagonist familiar from this genre, and in many ways is a variation of Fleming’s Bond, only with an “Oriental” overlay. James Bond crossed with a fortune cookie, maybe.

Before crossing the border Cord is approached by a stacked brunette babe who claims she is a schoolteacher who has been separated from her friends, down here for a brief Mexican vacation. She is graced with the Fleming-esque name of Weary Nowe, and Cord is certain she is an undercover secret agent, sent to monitor him. He will be proved correct, and indeed Weary is the character referred to on the hyperbolic first page preview as “a fuming nympho who’s the sexiest anti-heroine in print.” She pleads with Cord to cross the border with her, after which they go back to her hotel room for a sex scene that isn’t hardcore, but a bit more graphic than the era average. (“They fell to the bed where they expertly and erotically made love,” etc.)

Two dudes come out of the shadows to attack Cord; he takes them out with his kung-fu skills and poor Weary is hit “between the breasts” in the melee. On Cord goes to DC, where we learn in an Ian Fleming moment that our spy hero is afraid of flying. He heads to a certain mansion on the outskirts of the city, where he challenges the woman who answers the door to another kung-fu fight, taking on more dudes who come out to fight him. But it’s all a test, and this is the HQ of Central, “a Q secret organization dedicated to preserving the internal security of the country.” Cord walks into a room in which the small, bookish leader of the department, referred to as “Central” himself, waits for him; Cord isn’t very surprised to see Weary Nowe also in attendance.

Central (which here on out refers to the man himself) reveals that he has been monitoring Cord since he slipped out of China. At length the convoluted scheme will have it that Central wants Cord for a mission, but first must determine if Cord is really Cord. Meanwhile Cord is kept in a cozy prison where he’s given gourmet meals and frequent sex visits from Weary, who in between somewhat-explicit boffings (“her voluptuous breasts jutted proudly”) tells Cord how much she hates him, and how she hopes Central “castrates” him once Central realizes Cord’s really lying.

But of course we readers know Cord isn’t lying about who he is, and at length we’ll learn that the reason behind all this nonsense is because Central was really behind the plot to spring Cord from Red China, after all – it was his man who posed as a dude who visited the temple and just happened to know a way to smuggle Cord out of the country. But this dude later ended up dead, as did everyone else who met Cord since he left the temple – all records of him prior to his Korea service are gone, not even any file photos – so there’s this belabored “mystery” of trying to ascertain if this is the same dude who was captured by the Koreans back during the war.

At length the reason behind Cord being sprung is revealed: Central has come across a plot to kill Fidel Castro when the Cuban dictator gives his speech to the UN. (Justin Trudeau would be bummed!!) The assassin will likely be a Red Chinese agent named Mao Ling, who happens to be the same officer who murdered every man in Cord’s unit back during the war, and is the same man Cord has sworn to kill. Indeed it was to assassinate Mao Ling which caused Cord to leave the temple in the first place. The reason Central needs Cord is because Cord is the only person who knows what Mao Ling looks like. So as you can see, the novel is built around two similar themes, neither of which are very believable.

Throughout all this Cord is presented as a secret agent-type bad-ass, always in command of any situation and thinking twelve steps ahead of his opponent. Thus I was a bit surprised to learn after all this that Cord is not a secret agent, has not had any secret agent training, and I guess is just a bad-ass thanks to all that kung-fu jazz. At any rate, Central puts his entire department at Cord’s disposal. Central HQ is revealed to be a spy-fy wonderland, with a radio room staffed by gorgeous babes in “spiked heels” and toting .38 revolvers; the place has an underground exit that goes on for miles beneath DC and is guarded by laser beams.

But Faur doesn’t really exploit any of this and keeps everything on a low-key level. Instead it’s all about the suspense as Cord works with a small team, many of whom are killed off-page, Cord finding their corpses with jade-handled daggers in their backs. Weary flits in and out of the narrative for more jibes and sex (at one point leaving a note on Cord’s hotel-room pillow with the memorable line, “I hurt deliciously, you brutal bastard”), while meanwhile an always-musing Cord ponders how nowhere is “a friendly place to die,” not even the palatial UN building. Oh and he also runs afoul of Niles, a beautiful redhead who, Faur casually mentions later on, happens to be a “dyke” in the midst of a torrid love affair with none other than Weary, and thus hates Cord for wrecking their romance. 

Cord doesn’t even much use the Central-provided team; he relies more on a fast-talking cabbie named Joe Knox and a group of young kung-fu students who are the grandsons of Chang Lee, an old kung-fu wizard whose name was provided to Cord by the temple in China – there is, we are informed, a network of kung-fu helpers all over the globe for graduates of the temple. Chang has a granddaughter, Sally, who is the “most exciting girl Cord had ever seen,” with a bodacious bod and all-around incredible features with those “almond eyes” pulp writers love so much. Cord falls in love with Sally and vice versa, as the two trade all-too-precious dialog, such as:

She kissed him. 

“You are so gentle,” he whispered. 

“Men love gentleness; dogs like food,” she mused. “Love does not convey the idea of pity.” 

“A hungry man is glad to get boiled wheat,” Cord said.

There’s only so much of this sort of thing a red-blooded guy like myself can take. And that is the central issue with A Friendly Place To Die; practically the entire novel is written just like this. I was only half-joking above when I mentioned a fortune cookie. The book in many ways could almost be something a fortune cookie writer churned out in his downtime. It’s all just too precious for its own good, one of those novels where characters speak at one another rather than to one another; Cord and Central in particular banter and jibe relentlessly, and while it starts off enjoyable it quickly begins to grate. But the preciousness of the “Oriental wisdom” stuff is the worst, and in that regard the novel is almost as guilty as the later The Ninja.

Action is also sparse, and generally of a martial arts nature, like when Cord engages a massive Chinese henchman in a battle to the death. Here Cord discovers the charred corpse of Mao Ling, and is devastated by the vengeance that has been stolen from him. Now the suspense ramps up as Cord must figure out who is behind the Castro plot, while Cord must also meanwhile keep hiding the payment Central has given him for the job – a recurring, annoying subplot has the intelligence boss constantly sending Weary around to figure out where the money is and if Cord has absconded with it. 

At one point Cord is caught and tied to a bamboo pole in the middle of a steam room; in a grueling sequence he uses his kung-fuery to break free, and to also save a nude Sally Chang, who is likewise tied up nearby. Speaking of which we get a few sex scenes between these two as well, and Cord’s now in love with the gal. The novel climaxes with Cord having gained omniscient knowledge of who is really behind the plot – the assassin shows up posing as a cameraman.

Spoiler alert: Faur blows through the otherwise tense climax by having a bunch of stuff happening…and then backtracking and explaining what we just read. Long story short, the cameraman/would-be assassin is a Chinese dude in a latex mask, and he’s shot by Weary, who turns out to have been his accomplice, but who had second thoughts due to her love for Cord (which she masked via the constant jibing). But Cord meanwhile has shot Weary, who dies thinking Cord’s accomplice shot her. Cord’s figured out Weary’s duplicity a while ago (Faur only now bothering to inform us of this), and likewise he’s determined that “dyke” Niles was Weary’s co-plotter.

The finale sees a final confrontation between Cord and Mao Ling (who may have been posing as Central all along; Faur really confused me here – and that charred corpse was just a decoy), with Cord shooting Niles and trading a line or two with Mao Ling before the Chinese villain escapes. Yep, folks, Cord fails to get the vengeance he’s spent the entire novel wishing for.

And that’s that…Faur ends the tale with Cord likely about to become an agent for Central (who has been the captive of Mao Ling, though again I was uncertain if he’d been so from the beginning or just since Cord’s been on the case). But no further novels were to follow, thus this is where we must leave our fortune cookie-esque hero Cord.

No comments: