The Walking Drum represents L’Amour’s serious effort late in his career to escape being labeled merely a frontier novelist. Cast in medieval Europe and the Middle East, it presents panoramic action far from the nineteenth century trans-Mississippi West.
The incredibly melodramatic plot of The Walking Drum defies adequate brief summary. At the outset, narrator and hero Mathurin Kerbouchard learns that his mother has been murdered in Brittany and that his father is now languishing in forced servitude somewhere east of Baghdad (in what was then called Mesopotamia) and south of Tehran (in what was then Persia). Young Kerbouchard begins a long journey in search of revenge and his missing father. He grows talented in ways surely unique in history and even in fiction. He becomes a sailor; a horseman; a fierce warrior; a merchant with caravans (“the walking drum” pounds out their marching pace); an acrobat, juggler, and magician; a fluent linguist in Arabic, Frankish, Greek, Hindi, Latin, Persian, and Sanskrit; a versatile scholar and scientist mastering botany, chemistry, explosives, geography, history, literature, medicine, military tactics, music, philosophy, and theology; and a storyteller. He is also a L’Amour-style lover. That is, he has several voluptuous girlfriends (Moorish, Spanish, French, and Middle Eastern) but indulges in no sexual activity.
The novel falls into unnumbered but obvious thirds, the last of which is the shortest. Each has radically different scenery: Spain and its coastal waters, territory from France to the Black Sea, and exotic regions of the Byzantine and Turkish empires. The action features countless fights, imprisonment and escape, theft and ransom and rescue, wounds and injuries aplenty (and a touch of torture), and, in between, much serene study. This last gives L’Amour an opportunity to parade his wide-ranging(if superficial) erudition, as he has Kerbouchard pause between wild acts to absorb wise lore, esoterica, and no little trivia, partly by sitting at the feet of several real-life European and Arabic savants. L’Amour’s death prevented him from writing a promised sequel to this glittering medieval adventure novel.