Mon 31 Aug 2015
LOUIS L’AMOUR – Reilly’s Luck. Bantam, paperback original, 1971. Reprinted many times.
I have a theory that the reason so few of Louis L’Amour’s novels have done well on screen is that his quality as a writer doesn’t lie in story and character alone, but in his voice and small details that are almost impossible to translate to the screen. The same, by my estimation, is true of John D. MacDonald. Both men have had successful screen translations, but most often their work seems to lose something when it moves to film.
Reilly’s Luck is a good example of the qualities that illustrate my point: it is a strong well written western on classical lines with a story worthy of Greek myth, and yet as cinematic as it would seem I can’t really see it working on screen.
Valentine Darrant’s mother Myra abandons him in a snowstorm to the mercies of Will Reilly, a young gambler who like most L’Amour heroes is a little too good with a gun. Reilly is angered at first, but soon warms to the child and takes him under his wing as father and mentor.
With Reilly, Val kicks around the West from one trail town to another, from San Francisco to the capitals of Europe, gambling, working, and adventuring, but always haunted by why he was abandoned, and an unvoiced threat from his past. It is not until Val reaches maturity that things come to a head and he finds cold blooded gunman Henry Sonnenberg paid to kill him — by his own mother with a Russian nobleman from his European adventures involved.
L’Amour liked his themes from classical literature and he certainly works them here. Will Reilly is a sort of Charon ushering Val to manhood, and you can certainly see Myra as Medea murdering her own children when one interferes with her ambition. Val himself could be Jason or Theseus easily. Myra Fossett, Val’s mother, is certainly the most unusual woman in a L’Amour novel that I have encountered.
Obviously this sounds as if it would be a natural on screen. But the fact is the qualities that make a good L’Amour novel, the complexities and the details, just don’t transfer to the screen anymore than the savage commentary on the world of a MacDonald novel do. Like MacDonald, who he does not otherwise resemble, L’Amour’s plots aren’t really the point. You read them to be in their world, to experience them and not merely the story they tell.
The experience of reading L’Amour doesn’t translate to the screen as well as an Elmore Leonard or Luke Short western for instance. Here, and in many L’Amour works, the plot meanders a bit, a quality that is admirable in a novel but less so in a movie. Most of Reilly’s Luck would have ended up on the cutting room floor to the detriment of the novel and disappointment of L’Amour’s readers.
This one is one of my favorite L’Amour novels, penned later in his career and more ambitious than earlier titles. It’s a fairly big book, close to 300 pages, with a great many characters and a fairly busy plot. I’m sure many L’Amour fans dislike it for that reason, but for whatever reason I found Val Darrant’s quest an entertaining read, and Will Reilly a memorable companion for Val and for myself.