After 88 Westerns, Louis L'amour Turns in His Chaps for Chain Mail in the Walking Drum

updated 07/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For more than 30 years Louis L'Amour has been spinning yarns about good guys who triumph over evil on a fantasy frontier. The fastest writer in the West, L'Amour has turned out 88 books in Gatling-gun succession. So far his action-packed stories have sold more than 145 million copies and have been retold in more than 30 movies. (One of the first, Hondo, starred John Wayne.) Now, having mastered the world of Western novels, the 70ish author is tackling another territory—12th-century Europe and Asia.

In The Walking Drum (Bantam, $15.95) L'Amour explores the Middle Ages through the exploits of a larger-than-life warrior named Kerbouchard. Like the bold, brave cowpokes of L'Amour's Westerns, Kerbouchard faces a wilderness full of outlaws and venal villagers. Set in feudal Europe, the Near East and Asia Minor, the story centers on Kerbouchard's search for his father, who has been sold into slavery by a corrupt baron. The character's name was inspired by a nobleman's family crypt in an old church in Brittany, where L'Amour was an Army lieutenant during World War II. "It always irritated me that most of what was written about the 12th century concerned the Crusades," says the author. "So I decided to tell a swashbuckling adventure story about the period, which would also show the history of the times—about how people lived and how they worked."

A burly raconteur in hand-tooled cowboy boots, L'Amour writes with a painstaking respect for detail. The Walking Drum, for example, is authentic down to the exotic dishes and great literary works of the time. Before he wrote it, L'Amour read several thousand books on the Middle Ages. He had already traveled extensively through the territory covered in the novel and much of the rest of the world as well.

The son of a veterinarian and part-time farm-machinery salesman, Louis dropped out of high school in Jamestown, N.Dak. at age 15. Then he drifted around the Southwest, was a second mate on an East African schooner and, before he was 21, had ridden a bicycle across India and traveled from Afghanistan to Iran with a camel caravan. Says the author, "I try to give my readers authentic history, and they trust me for that." They also write to him. He receives, on average, 5,000 fan letters a year.

L'Amour and his wife, Kathy, live quietly in a sprawling Spanish-style villa in Los Angeles. (They have two children: a son, Beau, 23, and a daughter, Angelique, 20.) On workdays the author follows a routine. He rises early (5 a.m. in the summer, 6:30 a.m. in the winter), reads the newspapers and eats breakfast. Then he goes to his cavernous (500-square-foot) library-study, which opens onto the family swimming pool. Some 10,000 books, diaries, maps and explorers notebooks surround his desk in specially designed double-decker shelves. He types until noon on his IBM Selectric, then breaks for lunch and later a workout in his private gym with weights and the heavy bag. At night he avoids the Hollywood party circuit, preferring to read at home. "Reading," he explains, "is like a vacation for me."

L'Amour plans to write two more Kerbouchard books and then go back to Westerns. He has just bought a 1,000-acre ranch near Durango, Colo., where he hopes to live part of the year to absorb atmosphere.

But he's happiest sitting at his typewriter in L.A. Just like a cowboy who loves the prairie, L'Amour says of his work, "I get vastly lonesome if I'm away from it for more than a short time."

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