Louis L’Amour had hit his stride by 1965, when he wrote The Key-Lock Man. By then he had about 30 novels of the Old West under his belt, and his style and themes were well-established. The Key-Lock Man gives L’Amour fans exactly what they expect, while giving the careful reader a handful of L’Amour oddities to savor.
The title character is Matt Keelock, who’s brand is “a key alongside a keyhole.” It’s a clever pun, for sure, but L’Amour never plays with it as a leitmotif or plot driver. It gives us the title of the book, but nothing more. As the action starts, Keelock is being pursued by a posse across the northern Arizona desert. The posse aims to hang Keelock for shooting one of their buddies. Let us go to the text, to hear about it from the lips one of the posse members on Pages 4-5:
“[Keelock] was buyin’ grub in the Bon Ton an’ took offense at something Johnny said. Johnny was wearin’ a gun an’ the Key-Lock man wasn’t, so Johnny told him to go fill his hand or he’d hunt him down anyway.
“Johnny was in the saloon when he came back an’ pushed the door open an’ shot Johnny twice in the back whilst he stood drinkin’ at the bar. Third shot busted a bottle of whiskey.”
There were no witnesses, but Johnny was known as the fastest gun around, so of course Keelock couldn’t have beaten him in a fair fight. Besides, there were those two bullet holes in Johnny’s back. Given the title of the book, we know that Keelock isn’t at fault, but like the good writer he is, L’Amour lets the full explanation unfold over time. Those with modern moral scruples or legal training might be troubled by someone who leaves the scene of an altercation and returns later with a loaded gun to kill an opponent. That’s known as first degree murder these days. It’s common knowledge, though, that in Louis L’Amour’s west it was perfectly acceptable to kill someone in a face-to-face shootout.
Regardless of the legal niceties, the good citizens of the town are after Keelock. He leads them on a merry chase all over desolation, and we have a lot of fun watching Keelock outfox the posse. On Page 9, he leaves tracks that send them into a draw off the side of the trail, where they find a note from Keelock that reads:
That was a fair shootin anyway six ain’t nowhars enuf. go fetch more men. man on the gray better titen his cinch or heel have him a sore backed hoss.
What a scrappy, down-home feller this Keelock is! No doubt he talks just like he writes, and we can’t wait to hear him abuse the mother tongue when he finally has some dialogue. We have to be patient, though, because L’Amour starts The Keelock Man using a nice authorial device. As L’Amour puts it on Page 4, “You can know a man if you follow his trail, if you follow long enough.” Louis then puts this in practice himself. For the first 26 pages, the point of view is that of the posse, and it is through their eyes, and their eyes alone, that we learn about Keelock.
Eventually Keelock shakes off pursuit by the posse and gets to where he’s going. We know he’s headed toward something good, because the one thing Keelock grabbed from the pile of gear he was buying at the Bon Ton before hitting the trail was a comb.
OK, so, who is she? She is Kristina, and when we meet her on Page 27 she is rising like Venus:
She came up from the water and stopped at the edge of the pool to wring out her long blonde hair. She moved with a natural grace and without shrinking at her nakedness. Her body was white, and unbelievably lovely in the cool morning air.
Gotta love it that Keelock is bringing her a comb, seeing as she has nothing on but her long blond hair. (By the way, for those keeping score, Kristina is the only female character in the book, but that’s not unusual for L’Amour.)
Kristina sounds mighty appealing, but be careful, Mr. Keelock. Kristina, we learn, is the daughter of a minor Scandinavian nobleman. In addition to being tall, beautiful, and blond, she is also an excellent shot, no one to mess with, and up until now not a very good judge of men. Kristina had to leave Europe in a hurry because she fell in love with a rascal who turned out to be married already. When her father confronted the cad, he killed the old man in a duel, so naturally Kristina went to the secret door of her lover’s apartment and shot him dead. She then fled the scene and came to America, where she immediately fell in with another schnook, Oskar Neerland, and promised to follow him out west and marry him. When she arrives at the stage stop where she is to meet him, though, she discovers that Neerland is a brute—“he battered his horse with a gauntleted fist.” (Page 31.) We get no explanation of how she missed that little detail before agreeing to marry Neerland, but one thing is obvious: “a man who beats a horse would try to beat a woman.” (Page 32.)
Into this string of improbabilities walks Matt Keelock, who had “come in out of the night and storm, and had merely looked at her across the room, and claimed her for his own.” (Page 28). And here we get the first L’Amour oddity in the book. Remember that home-spun, hand-written note that Keelock left for the posse on Page 9? Compare it now to way Keelock speaks to Kristina. Throughout the story, our nearly-illiterate leading man addresses her in classic high-church L’Amour-ese. Their dialogue when they meet deserves quotation in full:
“Who are you?’” she had asked that night.
His eyes never wavered from hers. “That is a foolish question,” was his answer. “You have known for two minutes who I am, and what you are going to do.”
“And what am I going to do?”
“Ride away with me before the sun rises,” he said, “and be married when we find a minister worthy of the name.’”
She does exactly that, leaving Neerland behind to plot revenge. What is she thinking? Or, to quote her own internal monologue, “She had been a silly fool, a wild silly fool to go riding off with a man she knew not at all, into an utter wilderness.” Well, yes, Kristina, but this is the third time you have indulged in an impulsive romance. Your first one ended when you murdered your lover in Europe, and we have a pretty good idea of what will happen to Neerland as well, before we reach the end of this 153-pager.
L’Amour is not generally given to irony or parallelism, but who can miss the similarities between Keelock and Kristina? Both have exhibited a homicidal streak before the story begins, both are fleeing the long arm of the law, and before the game is over they’ll both kill again. Sad to say, we never hear them compare notes about their backgrounds, but I bet that made for a good “getting to know you” chat around the campfire early in their marriage.
Despite Keelock’s age (he is 35, we are told on Page 7) and Kristina’s fast habits back on the Continent, they start out their marriage with a program of chastity and re-virgination. “They were married in a quiet ceremony in a bare desert town . . . And that night they slept side by side, but not together.” Only after several weeks of marriage, while waiting for Keelock as he rides toward her with a comb in his saddlebag and a posse behind him, does Kristina move to seal the deal. She “had carefully made two beds of slender willow boughs and leaves. And then, she had moved the beds together, so that they were one bed.” (Page 43.) That’s the closest we get to marital relations in this novel. We might laugh at such prudery from these two, but L’Amour does not care any more about consistency of character than he does about consistency of voice.
And neither should we. We didn’t pick up The Key-Lock Man for a tutorial on consistency in modern fiction. We came for a saga set in Louis L’Amour’s mythic west, and that’s what we get. By the time the story is over, the desert country gets pretty crowded. Matt and Kristina are there, of course, like Adam and Eve in the Garden. So, too, is the posse, which doesn’t know when it’s licked and keeps coming even when it becomes obvious that Keelock didn’t back-shoot Johnny in the saloon. Neerland is not far behind, coming to seek his revenge on Keelock and Kristina, and presumably to beat up their horses with his gauntleted fist, too. Still, that’s not enough, so L’Amour throws in a couple of double-dealing treasure hunters looking for buried gold, and a herd of wild horses led by a golden stallion. Needless to say, by the end of the book Keelock will not only have the girl, but the gold and the horses, too.
It takes a lot of work to keep track of all these plot threads and characters, but there’s no need for the casual reader to be troubled. You can enjoy The Key-Lock Man for the desert epic it is, and just let the scenery speed past. Speaking of scenery, L’Amour sets the tale in a specific area, the deserts and canyons of northern Arizona and southern Utah, bounded by the Grand Canyon to the west, the San Juan River to the north, and Monument Valley to the east. It’s impossible for the reader to keep track of the geography without a map in hand, so here’s a link to the best map I could find: https://www.anyplaceamerica.com/directory/ut/san-juan-county-49037/ .
L’Amour takes some poetic license in moving his characters around this landscape, but the geography hangs together pretty well. At one point, though, Louis completely loses his sense of direction. On Page 134 he describes what Kristina sees: “To the westward the great wall of Piute Mesa was bright with sunset colors. In the valley below the shadows were reaching out from No Man’s Mesa.” Very pretty, but think about it. Both in this passage, and on the map, No Man’s Mesa is to the east of Piute Mesa. So, yes, Kristina must be looking westward toward Piute Mesa at sunset, as L’Amour says. But that means the sun must be setting in front of her, going down behind Piute Mesa. How, then, could the wall of Piute Mesa in front of her be “bright with sunset colors”? It would be the eastern wall of Piute Mesa in front of her, and it would be in shadow at sunset. Moreover, the shadows could not be “reaching out from No Man’s Mesa” in the westward direction she is looking. Rather, the shadows would be reaching out behind her.
All right, I’m nit-picking. Bear with me, then, while I point out one more inconsistency, and my favorite in the book. As the posse is riding after Keelock, we learn about the hard life that has bound the group together. On Page 7 we read that “[Chesney] had been the first to reach Neill’s place that time when a prairie fire threatened . . . . Kimmel had been a close second, racing his wagon as if it was a buckboard, and was filled with sacking already wet, and with shovels.” Now, that’s a heart-warming tale of frontier solidarity, neighbor helping neighbor as the prairie fire approaches. I bet they helped each other with the barn-raisings, too, and had some good hoedowns, and . . . hey, wait a minute. A prairie fire? The Key-Lock Man is set in the desert. The nearest prairie is hundreds of miles away, on the other side of the Continental Divide.
And yet, the man can write. The same author, in the same book, can shamelessly string together cliches, and then come up with some original and lovely imagery. In the cliche department, I offer three examples:
— In the back of his mind there had been a picture of the woman he wanted, a woman to walk beside him, not behind him. (Page 54.)
— “That Key-Lock man is an old lobo. He’s from away back at the forks of the crick. Anybody who gets that man in a corner has bit off a chunk, believe me, and he’d better have the jaws to chew it!” (Page 144)
— And there is one of L’Amour’s favorite Shakespearean steals: There are tides in the affairs of men . . . . (Page 76. See also, The Lonely Land, Chapter 3.)
Yet counter-balancing the cliches, there are several fine turns of phrase:
— The trail lay before them . . . like a thrown lance, it seemed to thrust at the distant heart of the hills. (Page 5.)
— Black shadows crouched in the open jaws of the canyons. (Page 19.)
— Keelock woke . . . with the lemon light of day showing faint across the eastern sky. (Page 91.)
— Finally, L’Amour hits a sweet double, scoring for both geographic specificity and good writing on Pages 55-56. Keelock and Kristina establish their base camp in the canyons north of Marsh Pass, Arizona. In their spare time, they explore the ruins of nearby cliff dwellings, and sure enough, there is a famous archaeological site right there known as the Keet Seel ruins. If you Google the site, you’ll see that L’Amour has described the ruins beautifully: “He glanced toward the great open-faced cavern that sheltered the mysterious ruins. The bulge of the cliff face above them was streaked with dark stains left by unnumbered ages of rain. The great ruins lay ghost-like and still, dwarfed by the immensity of the cavern and the towering cliff above.”
Thanks, Louis. That’s the stuff that keeps us coming back for more.