Retro Review: “The God in the Bowl” by Robert E. Howard or Conan Does Agatha Christie

The Coming of Conan the CimmerianNo, not that way. Get your mind out of the gutter!

Before I dig deeper into the science fiction and fantasy of 1946 (for more about Chicon’s 1946 Retrospective project, see here), I want to go back to the early 1930s to revisit one of the more unusual Conan sword and sorcery stories. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Reviews.

“The God in the Bowl” is one of the first batch of Conan stories that Robert E. Howard wrote. According to Patrice Louinet’s essay “Hyborian Genesis” in the back of the Del Rey edition of The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, “The God in the Bowl” was written in March 1932 and was the third Conan story written, following “The Phoenix on the Sword” and “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”.

Unlike the two previous stories, “The God in the Bowl” remained unpublished during Howard’s lifetime and appeared for the first time in the September 1952 issue of the short-lived magazine Space Science Fiction. Why on Earth editor Lester del Rey decided that a Conan story was a good fit for a magazine that otherwise published such Astounding stalwarts as George O. Smith, Clifford D. Simak and Murray Leinster will probably forever remain a mystery.

Space Science Fiction September 1952As for why I decided to review this particular Conan story rather than some of the better known adventures of our favourite Cimmerian adventurer (which I may eventually do), part of the reason is that the story just came up in a conversation I had with Bobby Derie on Twitter. Besides, I have been reading my way through the Del Rey Robert E. Howard editions of late and realised that there are a lot of layers to those stories that I missed when I read them the first time around as a teenager.

I don’t think I read “The God in the Bowl” during my first go-around with Conan or at least I don’t remember the story. And I’m pretty sure I would have remembered it, simply because it is such an unusual story. Because “The God in the Bowl” is a locked room – pardon, locked museum – mystery set in the Hyborian Age and features Conan as the prime suspect.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

As was common during the so-called golden age of detective fiction (and once again, “golden age” is used not as a marker of quality but as a term to signify the traditional mystery fiction of the 1920s and 1930s), “The God in the Bowl” starts with the discovery of a body. In life, this body belonged to Kallian Publico, Nemedian aristocrat, collector of and dealer in antiquities, treasures and rare artefacts.

The body of Kallian Publico is found strangled in a corridor in the so-called Temple, the building in the city of Numalia where he keeps his treasures. The body is discovered not by Conan but Arus, who works as a night watchman at the Temple. Our favourite Cimmerian (though Conan’s identity is not revealed until later and would not have meant much to Weird Tales readers after only two stories anyway) makes his entrance shortly thereafter, stumbling upon Arus just as Arus has stumbled upon the body of Kallian Publico.

Upon finding first the dead body of his boss and then someone in the Temple who clearly has no business being there, Arus understandably assumes that Conan must be the killer. “Why did you kill him?” he asks.

Conan replies that he did not kill the man and that he doesn’t even know who the dead man is. However, when Arus informs him that the dead man is Kallian Publico, Conan recognises the name as the owner of the house. However, before Conan and Arus can engage in some more information exchange, Arus pulls a rope to sound the alarm.

“Why did you do that?” Conan asks, “It will fetch the watchman,” whereupon Arus informs Conan that he is the watchman. Turns out that Conan had assumed Arus was a fellow thief who was after the same object Conan was after and that he only emerged from hiding to team up with Arus.

Conan 1967Robert E. Howard wrote the Conan stories out of order and the internal chronology of the stories has been debated for a long time now. However, “The God in the Bowl” is not just one of the first Conan stories written, it is also chronologically one of the first, maybe the first, of Conan’s chronicled adventures. Personally, I think it is the first Conan adventure, though many people think that “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” takes place before this one.

At any rate, the Conan we meet in “The God in the Bowl” is young, probably seventeen or eighteen. Howard explicitly refers to him as a “youth”. For that matter, this is also one of the few stories where Conan wears the loincloth that is his signature garb in the comics and Frank Frazetta’s covers for the paperback editions of the 1960s. Cause in most of the stories, Conan actually wears clothes and we get more description of his armour than we ever get of his loincloth.

This version of Conan is also still very inexperienced, naïve and clearly new to civilisation (and it is notable that Nemedia, the kingdom where this story is set, lies directly to the southeast of Conan’s homeland of Cimmeria). And while he is a thief in this story, Conan clearly hasn’t been a thief for very long at this point in his life. After all, he mistakes a watchman for a fellow thief and naturally assumes that a fellow thief would want to team up with him. Furthermore, Conan also doesn’t grasp that being found in the same location as a dead body does not look good at all and assumes that if he says that he did not kill Kallian Publico, people will simply believe him.

This becomes a problem when the law shows up in the form of a squad of city guards led by an officer named Dionus. The guards are accompanied by a man in civilian clothes named Demetrio who turns out to be the chief inquisitor of Numalia. The names of the characters as well as the description of the city of Numalia all feel very Roman and indeed Patrice Louinet points out that Howard apparently borrowed a lot of the names in this story from Plutarch. That said, in the oft reproduced map where Howard traced the various countries of the Hyborian age over a map of Europe and Northern Africa, Nemedia corresponds roughly to what is now Germany, so the Roman feel is a bit jarring. But then Howard’s historical influences are all over the place anyway, ranging from Assyria, Babylonia and ancient Egypt via classical Greece and Rome via  medieval Europe to the American West of the pioneer days and the colonial wars in the Middle East of the 19th century. Besides, “The God in the Bowl” was written before Howard codified his worldbuilding in his essay “The Hyborian Age”.

Demetrio immediately takes over the investigation and begins by establishing the facts of the case and questioning the two still living people on the scene, Arus and Conan. The whole scene plays out very much like a standard murder mystery. Demetrio – and the reader – learns that Kallian Publico was not even supposed to be at the Temple, since he had already gone home for the night. Arus never saw Kallian Publico return and only noticed that something was amiss when he found the padlock which secures the door to that part of the temple open. Only Kallian Publico has the key to that padlock and it is still on his dead body. However, the door was still barred and Kallian Publico and Arus were the only ones who had keys to open the bar. So this story is indeed a locked room mystery in the best golden age tradition.

If the Temple was locked and only Kallian Publico and Arus had keys, this begets the question how Conan got in. And indeed, Arus is quick to point the finger at Conan and accuse him of killing Kallian Publico. Come to think of it, it’s interesting that Arus never once comes under suspicion – even though he has as much of a motive, maybe more so, as we learn later – to kill his boss.

So Demetrio begins to question Conan. He gets his name and that he is from Cimmeria, another clue that this story happens early in Conan’s career, because in later stories he stops introducing himself as a Cimmerian and instead becomes Conan or rather Amra of the black corsairs, Conan of the Barachan pirates, Conan, the Kozaki hetman, Conan, chief of the Afghuli hill tribes, or Conan, King of Aquilonia.

Demetrio also quite quickly gets Conan to admit that he broke into the Temple to steal something. Initially, Conan claims that he only wanted to steal food, but it quickly becomes clear that he was after something else, though he refuses to say what it is. On the other hand, Conan is quite open about how he got into the Temple, namely by scaling a wall (“Impossible”, Arus exclaims, whereupon Conan points out that the carved ornaments on the wall actually made it quite easy for his Cimmerian climbing skills) and climbing in through a window after hacking through the bolt with his sword. Conan also admits that he knows the interior layout of the Temple, something which only Kallian Publico’s servants or wealthy clients would know. Finally, Conan insists that he did not kill Kallian Publico, though he would have done it, if Kallian had interrupted him. Once again, Conan’s straightforwardness is quite refreshing, as is his assumption that Demetrio will just believe him and let him go.

But while the set-up of an impossible murder committed in a locked building is straight out of a golden age mystery, Demetrio and Dionus are no soft-boiled Hercule Poirot types. On the contrary, Dionus and the only other named police officer Posthumo are violent thugs who don’t even want to bother with investigating the murder, but simply want to beat a confession out of Conan. Conan informs them that if they try, they’ll soon greet their ancestors in hell.

The Coming of Conan 1953Conan’s quick temper and the fact that he will kill anybody who offends him is another indicator that this story happens very early in his career. For while Conan’s temper flares up in later stories as well – in The Hour of the Dragon, widely assumed to be the last chronicled Conan adventure, Conan kills a ship captain and starts a slave revolt, because the captain was rude to him – the older Conan is less likely to kill people over a mere slight – also in The Hour of the Dragon, he spares the Nemedian king Tarascus, though he has every reason not to – whereas the young Conan absolutely will. Also see “The Tower of the Elephant”, another story which takes place during this period of Conan’s life, where Conan kills a man in a tavern, just because he was rude to him.

Demetrio is put off by Conan’s insolence, but he also recognises that Conan is dangerous, when provoked, and so tries not to provoke him. And while Dionus and Posthumo are merely thugs with badges, Demetrio is a detective who actually makes an attempt to solve the case. And so Demetrio does have some doubts about Conan’s guilt, because a lot of facts about the case simply don’t add up. For starters, Kallian Publico is still wearing his rings. But if a thief had killed him, he would certainly have taken the rings. Besides, Kallian Publico was strangled with a very thick rope. However, Conan has a sword, so why would he strangle Kallian Publico? Finally, the estimated time of Kallian’s murder doesn’t fit in with Conan’s account.

Just as Demetrio is about to hit a wall in his investigation, they hear the sound of a chariot in the street, a chariot that brings two more suspects, namely Promero, Kallian Publico’s chief clerk, and Enaro, his charioteer. Enaro is a black man – and indeed the only character other than Conan and the murder victim of whom we get a physical description. He is also a slave, the implications of which are problematic. However, the story makes it clear that Enaro is not a slave, because he’s black, but that he’s a debt slave. There are problematic racial stereotypes in Robert E. Howard’s work, including some of the Conan stories, but Enaro is not one of them.

Enaro resented Kallian Publico and does not mourn him. However, he also declares that he did not kill him, even though he wanted to. Unlike Conan, Demetrio actually believes Enaro, but then Enaro had no opportunity to commit the murder due to being nowhere near the Temple when Kallian Publico was killed.

Promero, meanwhile, clearly has something to hide, though he very emphatically declares that he knows nothing. However, Promero is no Conan and so he quickly spills the beans once Posthumo slaps him around a little. The whole thing is also intended as a demonstration for Conan, who is very much not impressed.

Turns out that Kallian Publico had an object in his custody, a gift that was sent from Stygia (the Hyborian age’s Egypt equivalent) to one Kalanthes of Hanumar, priest of Ibis. This object was a sarcophagus shaped like a giant bowl, which supposedly contained a priceless relic. Kallian was only supposed to keep the sarcophagus safe until Kalanthes could send someone to fetch it. However, the greedy Kallian snuck back into the Temple to examine the bowl, open it and steal the relic, which he believed to be the bejewelled diadem of a dead giant. Then, on the next day, Kallian planned to report that dastardly thieves had broken into the Temple and stolen the diadem.

“What of the watchman?” Demetrio asks. Promero explained that Kallian planned to sneak in, while the watchman was in another part of the building. He also planned to accuse Arus of being in league with the thieves and to have him crucified. Coincidentally, this gives Arus an excellent motive to kill Kallian Publico, but Demetrio never follows up on it.

Instead, Demetrio now wants to see the bowl, which just happens to be located in a nearby room, where signs of a struggle (torn drapes, a knocked over bust) indicate that that is the place where Kallian Publico was attacked, even if he was killed in the corridor.

So Demetrio, the guards, Arus, Promero, Enaro and Conan check out the murder room and find the bowl open and empty. Demetrio asks Conan if the bowl is what he came to steal, whereupon Conan points out that it is way too heavy for one man to carry.

Next to the bowl, there is a chisel and a hammer and there are chisel marks on the lid, suggesting that Kallian opened it in haste. There is also a curious design on the lid of the bowl, which Kallian took for a diadem, but which Promero insists is the sign of the Stygian snake god Set. And Kalanthes of Hanumar is an enemy of the cult of Set, just as Ibis, the god Kalanthes serves, is the sworn enemy of Set. So why would someone in Stygia sent Kalanthes a bowl with the sign of Set on the lid as a gift?

Promero turns out to be a fount of knowledge about ancient Stygian cults. And so he also insists that the bowl is old, older than the human world, and that it dates from the time when Set walked the Earth and mated with humans. His children were laid to rest in just such bowls. Just how Promero knows all this is never explained. He basically serves as a walking, quivering infodump.

Demetrio declares that all this is irrelevant anyway, since the mouldering bones of a child of Set hardly rose up, strangle Kallian and then walked away. Interestingly, Demetrio has not just almost cracked the case at this point, the scenario he paints is also the plot of another classic sword and sorcery story, “Thieves’ House” by Fritz Leiber. Though Leiber couldn’t have known “The God in the Bowl”, because while he did correspond with H.P. Lovecraft, Leiber never corresponded with Robert E. Howard. And “The God in the Bowl” did not see print until 1952, nine years after “Thieves’ House” was published in 1943.

Instead, Demetrio and Dionus decide to do something they should have done before, namely search the Temple to see if the real killer is still hiding out somewhere. Though Dionus is convinced that they already have the killer, namely Conan. And who cares if Conan really is guilty – he certainly looks the part.

French edition of ConanWe now also get a brief explanation of how justice works in the city of Numalia. Because it turns out that murder is not always murder in Numalia and some victims or more equal than others. Killing a commoner as well as breaking and entering carries a sentence of ten years of hard labour in the mines. Killing a merchant will get you hanged. And for killing an aristocrat or other prominent person, the murderer will get burned at the stake, which is the fate that awaits Conan, should he be found guilty..

This little offhand remark is not only a great bit of worldbuilding, it also explains why Aquilonia got lucky – or rather will get lucky – in getting Conan as a king who believes in equality before the law. And since Robert E. Howard wrote “The Phoenix on the Sword”, one of the three stories featuring Conan as King of Aquilonia, before this one, one can assume that he intended to show the discrepancy between the relatively fair and benign rule of Conan in Aquilonia and the outright corruption and inequality in its neighbouring kingdom Nemedia.

Demetrio, who is convinced at this point that Conan is innocent, uses the threat of being burnt at the stake to get Conan to tell him what he planned to steal. I strongly suspect that anybody who tried to burn Conan at the stake would swiftly regret it, but nonetheless Conan does admit that he was hired to steal a Zamorian diamond goblet by a man who gave him a floorplan of the Temple and explained where the goblet is hidden. Promero stops quivering long enough to confirm that yes, there is a diamond goblet hidden in that place, though he didn’t think anybody other than Kallian and himself knew about that. Promero is really great at incriminating himself.

Conan, meanwhile, steadfastly refuses to name the person who hired him to steal the goblet. And when Dionus insinuates that Conan was going to keep the goblet for himself, Conan replies that of course he was going to keep his word, because he is no dog.

The fact that Conan does not rat out accomplices and remains true to his word is a character trait that reoccurs throughout the stories. In “Rogues in the House”, another story which takes place during this period of Conan’s life, Conan finds himself in jail, awaiting execution, after murdering a duplicitous priest/fence for betraying his accomplice to the police. He is offered freedom in exchange for killing someone, manages to escape from prison on his own and still goes on to fulfil his mission, because he gave his word, even though escaping would be the smarter thing to do. And “Queen of the Black Coast” starts out with Conan on the run after another memorable brush with the law, where Conan refuses to betray a friend who is accused of killing an officer of the city watch. When the judge does not accept Conan’s explanation that he cannot possibly betray his friend and threatens to throw Conan into jail to make him talk, Conan kills the judge and bailiff “because they were all mad” and goes on the run. Given Conan’s experiences with the law, I’m surprised that Robert E. Howard left out the part about smashing outdated laws with a battle axe, when he rewrote the Kull story “By This Axe I Rule” as the first Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword”.

In fact, Conan’s loyalty to people he considers friends or he considers himself responsible for is one of his most enduring traits. That’s also why German SFF writer Hans Joachim Alpers’ famous quote that “Conan has the mercenary mentality of Kongo Müller [a then infamous West German mercenary fighting in Africa]” infuriates me so much, because it’s simply not true. For while Conan may have been a mercenary for many years of his life, he cares about others and is utterly loyal to those he cares about, whether it’s a friend or accomplice, the soldiers under his command or later the Kingdom of Aquilonia. He does occasionally oust another man from a position of leadership, e.g. Olgerd Vladislav in “A Witch Shall Be Born” and the pirate captain in “Pool of the Black One”, but in both cases it is obvious from the start that Conan is not loyal to either Olgerd or the pirate captain. They’re also both awful people, so no one really cares what happens to them.

Demetrio’s interrogation of Conan is interrupted, when the guardsmen return from their search of the house. They did find the window through which Conan entered, but they found no killer. However, one guardsman claims to have found the murder weapon, a thick mottled cable tied around the top of a marble column, so high that no one except Conan could have reached it. However, when Demetrio, Dionus and the rest of the gang go to investigate, the supposed murder weapon is gone. Dionus accuses Conan of taking the cable, but Demetrio points out that Conan didn’t have the opportunity, because he was always with Demetrio and Dionus ever since his arrest.

But even though Demetrio is convinced that Conan is innocent, he’s still perfectly willing to pin the crime on Conan, because – so he says – justice must be satisfied. Never mind that convicting and executing an innocent man is very much the opposite of satisfying justice. As Bob Byrne points out in his review of “The God in the Bowl” at Black Gate, this is the point where Demetrio goes from decent person and competent investigator to just as bad as Dionus and Posthumo.

However, before Demetrio can officially arrest Conan, Promero shows up again to share another infodump about Stygia and the cult of Set. For while everybody else was either searching the house or trying to figure out how to blame Conan for the murder, Promero examined the bowl and found the sign of the Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon etched into the bottom of the bowl. And Thoth-Amon is the sworn enemy of Kalanthes of Hanumar, intended recipient of the bowl. Promero also explains that the children of Set do not die, but fall into a centuries long slumber. And Thoth-Amon sent such a sleeping child of Set to Kalanthes to kill him, only that Kallian intercepted the bowl and opened it first, getting himself killed in the process. Again, it’s not clear how Promero comes to know so much about Stygia and the cult of Set.

Thoth-Amon, meanwhile, is a name that readers of the Conan stories will recognise, because he is one of the comparatively few recurring characters and the only recurring villain, who appears also in “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the very first Conan story written before this one, and is mentioned in The Hour of the Dragon, a much later story. Thoth-Amon’s ring, the source of his power, also appears in a Solomon Kane story and “The Haunter of the Ring”, a contemporary set Cthulhu mythos story by Robert E. Howard, featuring an occult investigator named John Kirowan. Thoth-Amon’s ring certainly gets around. However, it’s notable that Thoth-Amon and Conan never directly interact and likely don’t even know of each other’s existence, even though their fates are interlinked. That said, Thoth-Amon strikes me as rather naïve when he believes that Kalanthes, a man who has devoted his life to fighting the cult of Set, would just open the bowl without taking precautions.

No sooner has Promero delivered his latest infodump – and solved the murder – that Conan calls out that he has seen something move across the floor in a room that was previously empty, which sets off a new round of hysterics from Promero. Dionus and Posthumo have no intention to search the room again – after all, they believe they have already found their man – so Posthumo tells Promero to search the room and thrusts him inside.

Conan’s impending arrest is interrupted once again, when a guardsman drags in a well-dressed young aristocrat he found lurking outside the Temple. Dionus quickly tells the guard to unhand the young man, for this is Aztrias Petanius, nephew of the city governor. Aztrias claims that he was on his way home from a night of wine and revels and just happened to pass by the Temple. However, he is also uncommonly interested in the murder investigation.

Dionus, who is suddenly very servile when faced with someone of influence, brings Aztrias up to speed. Yes, it was murder, but we’ve got the killer and we’ll burn him at the stake. Aztrias takes one look at Conan and declares that he’s never seen such a villainous countenance before.

This is the moment where Conan has had enough. “Yes, you have”, he tells Aztrias and reveals that Aztrias was the one who hired him to steal the diamond goblet and was waiting for Conan to reappear and give him the goblet, when the watch seized him. And now would Aztrias please tell Demetrio that he saw Conan climb the wall and that Conan didn’t have time to commit the murder. Conan’s faith the honesty of others, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is almost endearing.

Demetrio now asks Aztrias if this is true. He also points out that Conan will be executed, if Aztrias does not admit to arranging the theft, and that Demetrio is willing to overlook the theft – after all, he knows that young noblemen often find themselves in financial troubles – and will even let Conan escape to hush up the whole embarrassing affair, if Aztrias but says the word.

Conan clearly is still expecting his accomplice to exonerate him, but of course Aztrias is not willing to say the word. Instead, he insists that he doesn’t know Conan and even has the impunity to suggest that ten years of hard labour will do Conan good.

By now, Conan has well and truly had enough of the corruption and dishonesty of civilization. He draws his sword and chops off Aztrias’ head, before anybody can stop him. He then tries to stab Demetrio in the groin, but Demetrio manages to deflect the blow and gets stabbed in the thigh instead. Next Conan cuts off Dionus’ ear, rips out one of Posthumo’s eyes (poetic justice, since Posthumo had gouged out a woman’s eye for refusing to implicate her lover in a crime) and kicks Arus in the teeth. It is notable that he leaves Enaro, the black charioteer, alone.

Conan’s righteous fury is interrupted by the reappearance of Mr. Exposition, Promero himself. He blabbers something about a god with a long neck and drops dead. This as well as the very angry Cimmerian with the bloody sword in his hand freaks out the survivors so much that they run or crawl away (Posthumo gets trampled in the process, too), leaving Conan alone in the Temple with a bunch of bodies and the unknown killer.

Sword in hand, Conan ventures into the room, from which Promero had emerged before dying. Half hidden behind a gilded screen, he sees an inhumanly beautiful face that beckons to him in a language older than mankind. However, Conan is still smart enough to realise that this inhumanly beautiful face must be that of the murderer who already killed two people that night, so he chops off the beautiful head and realises that the thrashing body behind the screen is not human, but that of a snake. Conan has killed one of the children of Set, which – along with being blamed for two murders, one of which he actually did commit – is enough to send even the bravest Cimmerian running for the border.

The snake monster with a beautiful human face might well have seemed familiar to Weird Tales readers, for a very similar creature appeared in the 1925 Cthulhu mythos story “The Were-Snake” by Frank Belknap Long, which Bobby Derie reviewed here. And indeed, it was a discussion on Twitter about Bobby Derie’s post, which prompted me to tackle “The God in the Bowl” for my next Retro Review. It’s not known whether Robert E. Howard ever read “The Were-Snake”, but he likely was familiar with the artwork, since the ever thrifty Farnsworth Wright reused it a couple of times. And the similarities between the two snake creatures are certainly notable.

As for why Farnsworth Wright rejected “The God in the Bowl”, even though he had the perfect artwork to accompany the story lying around, that will likely forever remain a mystery. After all, Weird Tales published a lot of occult and supernatural detective stories, most notably Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin stories, so “The God in the Bowl” would not have seemed out of place. It’s certainly better than the few Jules de Grandin stories I’ve read.

Dutch edition of Conan“The God in the Bowl” is one of the lesser known Conan stories and opinions about it are mixed. Bob Byrne and The Cromcast seem to like the story, while Howard Andrew Jones and Bill Ward don’t particularly care for it. Personally, I find the story flawed, but I still like it, simply because it is such an atypical Conan story. Though at the point this story was written, there was no such thing as a typical Conan story, since the first few Conan stories are all wildly different from each other. The string of similar stories where Conan and a beautiful, scantily clad woman find themselves dealing with sinister going-ons in some kind of lost city all came later.

Sword and sorcery and mystery are two genres, which go well together, because both are in essence about figuring out what the hell is going on. The clearest example of sword and sorcery mysteries are Simon R. Green’s Hawk and Fisher stories from the 1990s. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories occasionally veer into that direction as well. Last but not least, some of my own efforts are sword and sorcery mysteries, too. “The God in the Bowl”, however, is the only Conan story that is also very explicitly a murder mystery.

So how does “The God in the Bowl” hold up as a mystery? Not too badly. There is some decent detective work courtesy of Demetrio. The story also plays fair, because the reader is given all the clues they need to solve the mystery. That said, some of the clues are a bit contrived, e.g. the sheer amount of information about Stygia and the Set cult that Promero just happens to have. Promero’s involvement is also a bit contrived. Far better, if he had stumbled onto the scene, attracted by the alarm, then having the guards arrest him, because Kallian’s chariot stopped in front of his house. Finally, Demetrio completely neglects a likely suspect, namely Arus the watchman. The main weakness of the story, however, is that it is very wordy with lots of scenes of people standing around a dead body, while talking and gathering information. Furthermore, Conan is very much a supporting character in this story, whereas Demetrio is the true protagonist.

“The God in the Bowl” is also a curious mix of different crime fiction and mystery influences. The locked room murder and the clue based investigation are straight from the traditional mysteries of the so-called “golden age of mystery”, as is the talkiness. Meanwhile, the portrayal of the police as violent bullies and the general corruption that pervades the city of Numalia are straight out of hardboiled crime fiction, which was just taking off around the time Howard was creating Conan. And though Howard is on record as being not a great fan of detective fiction, we know that he was familiar with the genre both in its traditional (August Derleth, creator of Solar Pons, was one of his regular correspondents) and hardboiled forms thanks to this extensive list of books and authors that we know Howard read. Though according to that list, Howard never read Agatha Christie, though he did mention her American counterpart Mary Roberts Rinehart. He was not a fan apparently.

Finally, the “an animal did it” solution to the mystery goes all the way back to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (and thanks to the list above, we know that he did read Poe), though I guess we should be grateful that Howard chose to make his killer creature a snake with a humanoid face and not a giant ape. Though Conan would repeatedly tangle with giant apes throughout his career and in “Rogues in the House”, a giant ape actually does turn out to be the killer.

This mix of disparate mystery influences is probably also why the story feels a little off at times, because the fair play, present all the clues approach of the traditional mystery does not really mesh well with the more hardboiled and cynical attitude. Robert E. Howard did write a few hardboiled detective stories starring a character named Steve Harrison later in his career without much success, but “The God in the Bowl” seems to have been his first attempt at experimenting with the mystery genre and therefore he doesn’t quite have the form down yet.

Besides, Howard uses the form of the murder mystery less as an end to itself and more as a vehicle to discuss a topic that was near and dear to his heart, namely the conflict between barbarism and civilisation. This theme runs throughout the entire Conan series as well as the Kull stories, but it is very pronounced in “The God in the Bowl”, which contrasts the honest barbarian thief Conan with the corrupt representatives of the law. But even though “The God in the Bowl” takes place in the fictional kingdom of Nemedia many millennia ago, the rampant police brutality, inequality and corruption depicted in this story were something Howard borrowed from much closer to home.

Police brutality is still an issue in the US (and not only there either), as the events of the last year have shown. It was even more of an issue in the 1920s and 1930s, as were corruption and inequality before the law. Indeed, what happens to Conan in the story – getting accused of a crime he did not commit, police officers who don’t care about the truth, but just need to present a suitable culprit, being threatened with violence and facing either a lengthy sentence of hard labour or brutal execution – happened to many people in the US South during the time the story was written. The hard labour in the mines, which awaits Conan, if he’s lucky, recalls the chain gangs that were a common sight in the Southern US at the time (and indeed the prison memoir I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang by Robert Elliott Burns, upon which the eponymous movie was based, came out the year before, though there is no evidence that Howard was familiar with the text), while the burning at the stake, which awaits him, if he’s unlucky, recalls the electric chair. And the victims of police brutality and railroading were often outsiders, drifters and those perceived as other, just like Conan.

It is very likely that these issues were on Howard’s mind, when he wrote “The God in the Bowl”, especially since Howard was engaged in an exchange (quoted here) about police brutality with H.P. Lovecraft a few months after he wrote “The God in the Bowl”. I do think that Howard’s view of the lawmen of the Old West was a bit too rosy, but it’s notable that what he describes would happen if the bullying policeman of the 1930s were to try their tactics on an Old West outlaw is exactly what happens when the bullies of the Numalian city guard try those tactics on Conan.

By now, this review is almost longer than the story itself. But then, one thing that struck me upon rereading the Conan stories is that while they are kickass adventure stories on the surface, they have a lot of hidden layers, which only become apparent, when one rereads them as an adult.

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6 Responses to Retro Review: “The God in the Bowl” by Robert E. Howard or Conan Does Agatha Christie

  1. Bobby D. says:

    It’s worth pointing out a few things.

    The story generally predates Robert E. Howard’s later foray into detective fiction, where his gumshoes show less of a penchant for Sherlock Holmes-style deduction than for running the crooks down – and often surviving by the skin of their teeth.

    As a sort of a police procedural, and like “The Queen of the Black Coast” presenting a corrupt or nonsensical justice system that is not in accord with personal honor, “The God in the Bowl” reflects several conversations that Howard and H. P. Lovecraft had in their correspondence about the police and injustice – a spur on their tangent of barbarism vs. civilization, where Lovecraft touted the effectiveness of the police while Howard emphasized the inherent abuse of power – interesting reading in the 1920s!

    A card from Lovecraft shows that he actually read “The God in the Bowl” in manuscript, sometime after Wright rejected it.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks. I should have pointed out that Steve Harrison stories were written after this one.

      It’s also interesting that Lovecraft read the manuscript.

  2. Nicholas Cyr says:

    Fantastic review. I simply love young Conan really interesting to see how the character evolves. This and Tower of Elephant are what started turning me into a Conan fan.

    • Cora says:

      Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the post.

      I also love seeing how Conan developed over the course of his long and varied career. It’s also interesting that the first few Conan stories written are set either very early in his life (“The God in the Bowl”, “The Tower of the Elephant”, “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”) or towards the end of his chronicled adventures (“The Phoenix on the Sword”, “The Scarlet Citadel”). Howard clearly wanted to show how Conan grew from young thief to King of Aquilonia and only filled in the middle of his career later.

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