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Radigan (1958)

Radigan is Louis L’Amour’s fourteenth Western, and his only novel from 1958. L’Amour’s first success as a novelist didn’t come until 1953, with Hondo, when L’Amour was 45. That’s late for a debut, but his output was prodigious thereafter. Radigan, alas, is not one of his better efforts.

Tom Radigan, like so many Louis L’Amour heroes, is a loner. His back story is a bit sparse, but we learn that he was born in Illinois, fought in the Civil War, and served a stint in the Texas Rangers. Radigan also acquired a smattering of education along the way, unless Louis is just showing off his own erudition when he has Radigan deliver a little speech on the history of Spanish land grants in New Mexico (Pages 34-35), and later has Radigan quote Sir Francis Bacon—“He who hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune, for they are impediments to great enterprise.” (Page 72.)

When the story starts, Radigan is working a small ranch in the remote mountains of northern New Mexico. If you get out your map, you can locate the territory without too much trouble. Radigan’s ranch is twenty-eight miles north of San Ysidro, up the valley of the Guadalupe and Rio de Vaca rivers (which L’Amour calls “Vache Creek”). Winter is coming on, but everything is going well. Radigan has seven hundred cattle and a single hired hand, John Child, whom L’Amour cheerfully refers to as a “half-breed Delaware.”

Trouble soon arrives in the form of Angelina Foley and her cattle operation. They have come from Texas, having outworn their welcome in the Lone Star State because of their rustling ways. Before he died, Foley’s father got hold of a dubious Spanish land grant relating to Radigan’s ranch. Now here she is, ready to dislodge Radigan with a herd of 3,000 cattle, 30 salty hands, and a high-handed manner. You’d think that a snooty Texan down to her last 3,000 cows might do a little due diligence before driving them all the way to New Mexico, or she might consider just selling the cows and banking the cash. But in order to have a story Louis L’Amour needs Foley, her cows, her bogus land title, and her band of hombres, and so here they are.

Of course we need a love interest, too, and soon enough she appears courtesy of Radigan’s sidekick. Child announces in Chapter Two that he has an adopted daughter named Gretchen, whom he placed in a Mexican convent when she was thirteen. Now she's eighteen and is coming back to live with her Dad. As with all other L’Amour leading ladies, Gretchen Child (the pun on the last name is obvious) is both a babe—“her face was that of an innocent child but her body was such that no clothing could conceal the lines of her figure”—and a bad-ass—“I can ride anything that wears hair, . . . . I can work, and I can use a gun. I’m really strong.” She held out her arm, doubled to make a muscle. “Just feel of that.” She also has a lot of costume changes. In the space of ten pages, Gretchen arrives in her traveling clothes, changes into “a neat grey riding habit,” and within a few days is seen in “riding boots and a rough skirt,” then a “simple cotton dress.” (Pages 45-56.) Why the sudden interest in couture, Louis? I don’t recall this being a significant interest in your other books. But perhaps you are simply doing a bit of foreshadowing.

For all L’Amour’s efforts to portray Angelina Foley as a scheming femme fatale, she and her crew are remarkably inept. Despite her huge numerical advantage over Radigan, it’s a lopsided fight. Indeed, a basic problem with the book is that there are simply too many bad guys, and the field is too crowded for any one of them to emerge as a real foil for Radigan:

-- In Chapter One, Radigan ices a dry-gulcher named Vin Cable, whom Foley has sent ahead to clear the way. Put him down as Bad Guy No. 1.

-- In Chapter Two we meet Harvey Thorpe, who has “a lean, handsome face with a hint of repressed savagery behind it . . . . There was impatience in such men, impatience that could lead to trouble, impatience that might them killed or lead to the killing of others.” OK, put Thorpe down as Bad Guy No. 2.

-- No sooner do we meet Thorpe but the focus shifts to Ross Wall, the foreman of Foley’s outfit, “a fighting man, and he looked a hardheaded man who would take some convincing.” He’s Bad Guy No. 3.

-- Before No. 2 or 3 can cause any trouble, Radigan runs into three more of Foley’s henchmen on Pages 37-38: Barbeau (No. 4; he’s basically a big ape, added to the story to give Radigan someone to beat up), Coker (No. 5), and Bitner (No. 6). Only Coker even merits a first name, so expendable are these three.

-- Finally, late in the book, on Page 126, we get Swiss Jack Burns, "a gunman from over Kansas way," as Bad Guy No. 7.

Sorry, Louis, but seven bad guys is just too many for a 154-page paperback. (For those keeping score, of these seven, one rides away, one gets beaten up, one gets beaten up and then shot through the shoulder, and four are gunned down by Radigan.)

However unlikely Foley's invasion may be, somehow Radigan must have seen it coming. He has secret hideouts all over the territory with caches of food and ammunition. He even excavated a tunnel from his ranch house to a hidden exit some distance away. (A tunnel? How long did it take Radigan and Child to dig that?) After Radigan, Child, and Gretchen escape via said tunnel on Page 61, the book becomes a series of episodes in which Radigan and the Childs out-maneuver and out-fight Foley’s outfit.

The plot then takes a twist around Page 120, when Radigan and John Child commit a classic rookie mistake and ride away from their hideouts, leaving Gretchen behind to fend for herself. Sure enough, while the menfolk are away, Bad Guy No. 6 (Bitner) shows up, full of impure thoughts, and for the remainder of the book Gretchen defends her honor and fights for her life. (This is a theme to which L’Amour returns many times, and he’s not the only storyteller to make use of this sturdy vehicle. For a discussion of the genre, Google “femjep” or “feminine jeopardy”.)

Sad to say, two aspects of the duel between Gretchen and Bitner are off-key and weaken the tale. The first is Gretchen’s outfit. Remember all those costume changes early on? Well, even though Gretchen is aware that an enemy is stalking her, on Page 139 she changes into a white, off-the-shoulder ball gown just to admire herself in the mirror. True, being scantily clad is part of the standard femjep playbook, but a ball gown? in a hideout in a cave on top of a mesa? The second problem with the duel is its ending. Her ridiculous get-up notwithstanding, Gretchen shows resourcefulness and grit, and she manages to scratch Bitner first with a knife and then with a bullet. But L’Amour doesn’t let her finish the job. Instead, Radigan rides up at the last moment and drills Bitner with his Winchester. And so, in the end, Gretchen needs rescuing after all.

The romance fizzles, too. Gretchen has her heart set on Radigan, but throughout the book he is not simply stoic, he is completely clueless. When he rides away from Gretchen on Page 120, Radigan is “startled to see tears in her eyes. He looked hastily away. Now why would she be crying? There was no accounting for women, and it wasn’t as if he was a relative or anything.” We may hope that he will come around in the end, but he never does. They only have one more scene together, as Bitner is bleeding out on the mesa. Radigan says to Gretchen, “Sorry I was late,” and she replies, “You weren’t late. You were right on time.” And that’s it. The book ends four pages later without another word about Gretchen or her ball gown.

Unsatisfying, for sure. And sloppy, too. One of the reasons we love Louis L’Amour is his disdain for basic editing, but in Radigan the errors tend to be annoying rather than amusing. At one point, we can only surmise that L’Amour took a coffee break, then came back and simply repeated what he had just written. Here is the dialogue between Radigan and Gretchen on Pages 68-69.

“No time to waste,” he said. “I want to get started before the light goes.”

“Be careful.”

“That I’ll be.”

He went out to his horse and slid his rifle into the saddle scabbard. Gretchen had followed him out. “Tom—be careful.”

A lost ray of sunshine caught her golden hair in a web of gold light. “Sure,” he said.

Then there’s the trouble with Gretchen’s age. As noted above, when we first hear about her she is eighteen years old. (Page 32.) Yet in her duel with Bitner she tells him that she is seventeen. (Page 141.) Either way, that’s pretty young. The novel is set in the 1870s, so given Radigan's back story he must be in his early thirties. If we give him fifteen years on Gretchen, that would be one of the wider age differences for L’Amour couples, though not completely out of line. It’s roughly the same age difference of the hero and heroine in The Key-Lock Man, for example. Perhaps L’Amour was simply writing from his own life. He had recently married Kathy Adams, in 1956, when he was 48. She was just 22.

Or how about the episode where Radigan, Child, and Gretchen are held as prisoners in a cave during a snowstorm? They are guarded by three of Foley’s men, including Bad Guys No. 2 and 5 and someone described as “a squat puncher named Jones.” (Page 91.) The Bad Guys have clear instructions to kill them and leave no trace, and this is the perfect opportunity. Yet a whole night passes and nothing happens. Finally, in the morning, Bad Guy No. 2 rides off, leaving Bad Guy No. 5 to finish the job. But of course he screws up, and Radigan shoots him with a pistol that is lying negligently within reach. This is more than ineptitude on the part of the Foley gang, it’s lazy writing. If you need further proof, by Page 102, L’Amour has forgotten that "Jones" is the name of the third Foley hand, and he simply supplies a new one—“Gorman”—rather than going back to check.

Still, no Louis L’Amour is without it’s good moments, and right in the middle of the duel between Gretchen and Bitner, L’Amour gives us a sentence that deserves to be included in any restatement of the Code L’Amour:

There are times in life when the fancy words and pretty actions don’t count for much, when it’s blood and dust and death and a cold wind blowing and a gun in the hand and you know suddenly you’re just an animal with guts and blood that wants to live, love and mate, and die in your own good time. (Page 145.)

Pretty good stuff, Louis, and if the style is derivative of Papa Hemingway, well, you might as well steal from the best.

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