The Walking Drum/ Louis Lamour (Bantam, 1984): I decided on rereading this novel, which I originally read in 1987. I remember not being overwhelmed with it back then and came back even less now. This was Louis Lamour’s further entry into historical fiction. He had pushed at the boundaries with some of his Sackett novels. Lamour had written some exotic adventure stories for pulp magazines in the early 1940s claiming later to have used first hand experience in sailing to tropic climes. The problem is Louis Lamour’s supposed experience might be as fictional as his stories. Jim Thompson was friends with Lamour at one time and commented that Lamour had a habit of creating a fictional past. Robert Weinberg’s Louis Lamour Companion states that Lamour originally wrote The Walking Drum in 1970 but that his publisher (Bantam) wouldn’t publish the book as it was not a western. I have not found any corroborating evidence.
The Walking Drum was a best seller when it came out in 1984. Bestseller novels continue to confound critics with things like Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Gray selling in the millions. Louis Lamour was a consistent favorite from the 1970s on. Ironically, western aficionados consider Lamour’s best work before 1975 if not 1970. Lamour was a mid-list pulp writer producing for western pulp titles such as Texas Rangers and Thrilling Western. He was not a writer for the top tier magazines such as Western Story Magazine. He made the jump to paperbacks along with colleagues Gordon D. Shirreffs, Les Savage Jr., and Norman Fox among others. Lamour wrote for the Ace western line, managed to produce four novels for the more prestigious Gold Medal paperback line, and struck pay dirt writing for Bantam. Bantam wanted Luke Short (Frank Glidden Jr.) to produce three novels a year. Short/Glidden couldn’t produce on that schedule but Lamour could. He proceeded to produce a large number of western novels of varying quality. There is a story, perhaps myth, that he brought coffee and donuts to loading dock workers to ensure delivery of his paperbacks. He also reportedly schmoozed the paperback distribution agents. Conversely, Lamour would not write any blurbs for other western writers.
He was selling well enough that by the 1970s his novels were not being edited per order from Bantam executives. The Walking Drum is a book in need of an editor. The book is a series of adventures of Mathurin Kerbouchard in the 12th Century. The historical anachronisms fly fast and furious. Written in the first person (I generally do not like first person narratives), Kerbouchard states he is a pagan and had Druid training. In the 12th Century, an outright pagan in Brittany would have been burned at the stake. The Druids were long gone as was their learning. Escaping from enemies, he naively attempts to buy passage on a corsair ship where the captain promptly imprisons him to the galley oars. Within a couple of pages, Kerbouchard goes from being an unworldly teenager to Cugel the Clever tricking the captain. Lamour is famous for lack of time consideration in novels such as Sitka where he compresses events over twenty years into seeming like a year or two.
The ship ends up in Moorish Spain. Lamour stops the story often to engage in info-dump, often on the superiority of the Moslems to Christian Europe. This is especially grating considering events of the past 11 years. Lamour has no descriptions; his Moorish Spain could as easily be the southwest United States. He also didn’t research his weapons very well as his Moors are using scimitars instead of straight swords. The classic scimitar was a few centuries in the future. Some of the action scenes are not very well done. There is a storming of a castle that catches the reader’s attention but that is the exception in this novel. The story goes from Brittany to Spain to France to Kiev to Constantinople to Mt. Alamout of the Assassins. He rescues his father who is imprisoned there using gunpowder. This wouldn’t have been a bad novel with some judicious cutting and rewrites of scenes. The episodic nature of the novel would have worked as a series of novelettes or novellas for a magazine. Lamour was well into his 70s, how many great works are created at that age? He was probably already feeling the effects of declining health by this point. Lung cancer would kill him in 1988.
This is an historical adventure novel for people who don’t read historical adventure. I say that Andrew Greeley’s The Magic Cup is a fantasy for people who don’t read fantasy or Margaret Atwood writes science fiction for people who don’t read science fiction. If you are a seasoned reader of historicals, skip this one. The research has the appearance of superficiality and slips on the details. To the frustration of some western readers, there are people who read Louis Lamour and no other western writers. I have met some. Leave The Walking Drum to them.
2 out of 5 harmonic chromosome rating.
My theory as to why L’Amour is better at shorter lengths is that he had less time to forget what he’d already written. One of his later novels has the same scene in it four or five times, almost word-for-word, which tells me he’d forgotten he already wrote it. He was notorious for losing track of characters, as well, which meant he sometimes wound up with too many or not enough corpses after a big gunfight, or a plotline would vanish in the middle of a book, never to be resolved. Of all the boasts he made, the one about never rewriting or even looking back at what he’d written is the one I believe.
But when he was really on his game, in some of the short stories and in novels like FLINT and TO TAME A LAND, there was nobody better.
I read all of his books when I was a teenager and obviously enjoyed them, but I was always ready to roll my eyes when one of his stock phrases or plot lines would show up again. Even as a teenager and definitely as a young man, I found some of his novels a little embarrassing, I remember a friend of mine really badmouthing The Last of the Breed when he has the protagonist carrying around a backpack with 300 lbs. of meat in it. I was one of those readers who also read other Western writers, but I should have read more of them and less of L’Amour.
I’m reading it at the moment, probably going to review it for Blackgate Magazine. A very odd book, as if he’s trying to be Harold Lamb. Despite the way he botches the military details, he’s obviously done a tonne of research. It’s as if he wanted to be Harold Lamb all along but ran out of time.
I think I can safely give this one a pass. I read his other historical, Fair Blows the Wind, which was also in need of an editor. Comstock Lode on the other hand, was excellent as a big, sprawling tale of the Nevada Gold Gush. Short stories are more my taste as a rule, and Lamour was consistently good at them, not an easy art to master.