Saturday, September 30, 2017



The Battle of the Sexes is a well written, well-acted, well directed film with few surprises and, consequently, less impact than it should. The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs is well documented—not only as a touchstone moment in sports history, but in the evolution of Western society. Specifically, it became the face of the burgeoning sexual revolution, and a rebel yell in the fight for women’s equality. It was also a defining moment in the lives of two disparate, flawed, very human individuals played out in the glare of the media spotlight.

While Emma Stone and Steve Carell inhabit their characters, the film plays so safe with the events, it is impossible to get lost in the portrayals. We never forget we are watching two actors doing a fantastic impression of two historic figures moving relentlessly toward an intersecting destiny. The problem can be traced to directors Valerie Faris’ and Jonathan Dayton’s choice to limit the film by turning two-thirds of the narrative into a personal story in which King anguishes over her bisexuality.

In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s this might have been a revolutionary story deserving of being made the focus. However, as awareness of the LGTB community has made strides in the intervening years, the more interesting story relevant to today becomes Billy Jean King’s singular focus and dedication to her sport. Her sexual orientation is part of her story, but to make it the only part is to belittle Billy Jean King’s major accomplishment—the exposure and beginning deconstruction of a male dominated society.

In real life, the actual tennis match between King and Riggs transcended the individuals involved. So too, The Battle of the Sexes, is finally allowed to roar with the first serve of the fantastically recreated tennis match. Despite knowing the historic outcome, everything that had gone before—King’s lifestyle choices, Riggs’ gambling addiction (which gets short shrift, being played more for laughs than pain)—fades away as the pock, pock, pock sound unique to tennis rivets and grabs your whole attention. Finally, the film eclipses its faults and double-faults and begins to soar.

Thursday, September 28, 2017



In a previous column, I wrote about the wonderful explosion of Indian Hindi Pulp and its rare but engaging English translations. Tamil Pulp is another strong tradition to come out of India, with several collections also being translated into English. Spoken in four south Indian states, Tamil is the official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore. 

Always considered the language of high culture in India, Tamil has today become the choice of mass market Indian fiction authors, whose stories and style of writing mimic the American pulp magazines, whose heyday ran from the1930s thru the 1950s. In a uniquely Indian twist, these action packed Tamil Pulp stories are often filled with kings, ghosts, and mythological serpents. 

Similar to when the American pulp magazines once boomed, Tamil Pulp novels are currently flourishing in India. They can be spotted on every newsstand and book stall, recognized by their lurid covers—often featuring mustachioed men menacing women in tight nurse's uniforms, knives dripping blood, and lots of cleavage. Clearly, another strong connection to their American forerunners.

In 2008, California born Rakesh Khanna had returned to India and was living in Chennai, the capital of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, near the Bay of Bengal. Seeing the barrage of Indian pulp novels exploding around him, Khanna became fascinated by the stories. Inspired, Khanna and translator Pritham Chakravarthy co-founded Blaft, an alternative publishing company dedicated to English language versions of Tamil Pulp. 

Blaft has since published three translated anthologies of Tamil Pulp. The books themselves are works of art. The luridly brilliant cover of the first volume features the intriguing figure of a busty, gun-toting, Tamil rose with a knowing look. The following volumes sport similar images. Inside there are striking color reproductions of many Tamil Pulp covers, as well as professionally executed line drawings used to illustrate the stores. Everything is in perfect balanced from the quality of the paper to the binding. Pulp has never looked so good.

The collected stories themselves are riveting and well worthy of their place between the covers. There are mad scientists, hardboiled detectives, robot murderers, desperate housewives, scandalous starlets, sordid, drug-fueled love affairs, vengeful goddesses, and enough racy material to make any mother despair if she caught you reading about them. With titles like, Hold On A Minute I'm In The Middle of A Murder; Sweetheart, Please Die; and Eat Pray Love Kill, any pulp fan is going to be all in.


In 1933, Tamil author Sudhandhira Sangu wrote an article called The Secret of Commercial Novel Writing. He laid out the three golden rules:

1. The title of the book should carry a woman's name—and it should be a sexy one like Miss Leela Mohini.

2. Your story must absolutely include a minimum half-dozen lovers and prostitutes, preferably ten or a dozen murders, and few sundry thieves and detectives.

3. You can make money only if you are able to titillate. If you try to bring in any social message, forget it. Beware! You are not going to lure your women readers.

Anyone want to argue with the rules? Didn’t think so... 


This anthology features seventeen stories by ten best-selling authors of Tamil crime, romance, science fiction, and detective stories, none of them ever before translated into English, along with reproductions of wacky cover art and question-and-answer sessions with some of the authors. Grab a masala vadai, sit back and enjoy!


Selected and translated from the Tamil by Pritham Chakravarthy. Edited by Rakesh Khanna. The follow-up to 2008's successful first collection featuring stories by Indra Soundar Rajan, Medhavi, Jeyaraj, Pushpa Thangadorai, Rajesh Kumar, Indumathi, M.K.Narayanan, and Resakee. A young woman's fascination with blue films leads to a bizarre murder! A bloodline of debauched maharajas falls prey to an evil curse! A beautiful girl uses karate to retrieve a stolen idol! Seven thrilling tales from seven Indian and Singaporean masters of action, suspense, and horror!


From the sewers of small-town Tamil Nadu to the drug dens of Khajuraho...From the dance bars of Hyderabad to the exoplanets of Gliese 581...The doyens of Tamil Pulp Fiction bring you six short novels of love...crime...and interstellar terror!

Sunday, September 24, 2017


I’m not sure if I can express how much this film affected me on a level as deep and icy as the Wind River reservation it depicts. Directing from his own script, Taylor Sheridan—last year’s Best Screenplay Oscar winner for the riveting Hell Or High Water—turns Wind River into an unnerving slow burn punctuated by powerful jolts of violence. This mixture gains it’s emotional volatility from the inner core of the journey each character is following. Because of this, it all rings true, as the film’s violence is driven by the characters, not dictated by structured clichés, which demand a visceral kick for false and manipulative validation.

The story in Wind River is disarmingly straightforward. Grizzled U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert is forced to confront his past when he agrees to collaborate with rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner, to solve the harrowing circumstances behind the murder of a young woman on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. Expectations raised by these circumstances are negligible—we’ve seen this all before. But in Wind River, the surface murder mystery, and it’s relatively mundane solution, are a smoke and mirrors distraction to allow the true underlying plot to slowly surface like a blade of spring grass piercing hard—packed snow.

Wind River spins its simple premise on its head, chipping away at what we think we know, to reveal a haunting, metaphor about fatherhood, male bonding, race, poverty, isolation, surviving the unsurvivable, and determination. The final effect comes full circle when a sentence appears on the screen, seconds before fade out, carrying an emotional punch far more visceral than all the prior scenes of violence.

Jeremy Renner is terrific as Fish And Wildlife officer, Cory Lambert. He is the keystone of the film, his face and demeanor displaying a constant emotional, internal, concentration. He is never out of step with the elements of either story or the harsh setting. He is always the relentless hunter of predators—in all their forms—who target the weak. There is never a moment where it is unclear what his motivations are or why he takes the actions he intuitively understands are required.

Renner is well matched by Elizabeth Olson as Jane Banner. Her diminutive stature should have been a casting fail, but she doggedly follows the lead of Emily Blunt, an actress who has honed overcoming her physical size into an art form. Portraying an FBI agent dropped into an alien world, Olson also benefits from a script which doesn’t treat her character with distain. Jane Banner is well aware she is out of her element, but sharp enough, and tough enough, to make the necessary adjustments to her situation without hesitation or consternation.

With help from the Tribal Police Chief—another character given a solid anchoring in reality—determining who sent young Natalie running barefoot through the snow to an icy grave, puts Lambert and Banner on a path to truths as chilly and as barren as the desolate environment surrounding them.

As the director, Sheridan stages his climax magnificently. Smoothly blending in a key flashback at exactly the right moment, he reveals the chilling extent of what Natalie endured before she escaped into the frozen wasteland, a warrior alone and without hope. What follows is a bravura sequence, the intensity almost too much to take after the deliberate pacing of what has gone before.

As with Hell Or High Water, Sheridan ends his story not with violence. Instead, he captures us with an emotional elasticity, which goes way beyond the solving of a murder mystery or the catching of a killer. The impact of the raw emotion, which leaves you sitting in your seat until the final credit rolls, comes not from the physical violence, but from the agonizing sincerity of the characters—a dynamic cutting across the fences of race, gender, and societal class as if they were non-existent.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


SEPT. 2017

September belongs to Peter Rabe. This September, we are reprinting the entire Manny deWitt series, which includes Girl in a Big Brass Bed, The Spy Who Was 3 Feet Tall, and Code Name Gadget. Next year at this time, we will be reprinting his two Mafia novels, War of the Dons and Black Mafia. And in 2019, also in September, we will finish up with New Man in the House and Her High School Lover, the two obscure novels Rabe published under the Marco Malaponte pseudonym back in 1963. Something to look forward to.

But for now, we’ve got the deWitt novels, which are in a class by themselves. For these books, Rabe decided to try something new, adding an offbeat humor to his stories, and creating a series around an industrial lawyer who is sent on frustrating missions by his capricious boss, Hans Lobbe. Sometimes the humor works, sometimes it doesn’t. As Rick Ollerman points out in his introduction:

Crimes abound in all three but the books are not really about a crime per se...While Rabe said he admired the work of LeCarré and Deighton, who wrote spy thrillers, deWitt is not a spy. He’s just a lawyer, trying to carry out whatever instructions Lobbe has given him…On the other hand, there are spies in all three of the books, working against deWitt. It takes a master plotter to pull something like this...

So, what we have here are spy satires, sort of, with Rabe putting his main character through the paces while giving us a bit of a wink from the margins. For my taste, Code Name Gadget is the best, with most of the arch humor ditched in favor of a more traditionally gritty spy thriller. As Rick points out, Peter Rabe was anything but conventional and these three novels were a bit of an experiment. Kristofer Upjohn, writing in the Noir Journal, calls the book swift and fun. See if you agree.

Also this month, we are reprinting two more Algernon Blackwood supernatural classics: John Silence—Physician Extraordinary and The Wave: An Egyptian Aftermath. John Silence collects all the tales of the psychic investigator that were originally published in the 1908 hardback, plus a final story that appeared in Day and Night Stories in 1917 called A Victim of Higher Space.

John Silence was something of a supernatural Sherlock Holmes, aiding his clients by tracking down the origins of their various hauntings and weird manifestations, then dispelling them.

Earlier this year, critic Michael Dirda wrote a long article on Blackwood for The New York Review of Books. You have to subscribe to view NYRB articles online, but here is what he had to say about the John Silence stories: Whatever the background—ghostly invasion, devil-worship, a were-wolf, the depredations of an ancient Egyptian mummy—Blackwood expertly builds up an atmosphere of the otherworldly coupled with the spiritually threatening.

John Silence definitely presents Blackwood at his timeless best. The Wave, originally published in 1916, is an expansive story of love and reincarnation played out across the sands of Egypt. Critics at the time were profuse in their praise for this one: “The glory of words, the grandeur that was Egypt, the splendor of a brave and loving human soul—these are the very substance of this fascinating volume.”—New York Times. “A strange and unusual book, full of insight and imagination...the work of a very delicate literary craftsman.”—The Saturday Review

Anthologist and critic Stefan Dziemianowicz provides an excellent introduction to this mammoth volume. No one wrote like Blackwood, and the power of his visions still captivates today. If you’ve never read him, this probably isn’t the best volume to start with, but if you are already familiar with his metaphysical explorations, this is just what you need for a cold winter night. 

Stark House Crime Club members will automatically receive the Peter Rabe book. If you would like to receive the Algernon Blackwood book as well, let me know via email.

In the meantime, we’ve added a few more ebooks to the ever-growing list: The Goldseekers by W. R. Burnett, Hardboiled, Noir and Gold Medals by Rick Ollerman and Virgin Cay/A Night Out by Basil Heatter. Available now on Kindle!

To visit the Stark House Press website CLICK HERE

Wednesday, September 20, 2017



I am a big fan of discovering pulp stories from other cultures and countries. Pulp is truly universal, entertaining readers across the globe. Recently, I posted about the South African fotoboekies—a mash-up of action photography and cartoon captioning—including TESSA and LANCE SPEARMAN.

On the heels of those posts, I dropped in on The Yellow Dog Bookstore in Kansas City on the way to catch a plane home to California. There, tucked away in a corner, with its pulpy awesomeness screaming from a gaudy paperback cover, was a mint copy of The 65 Lakh Heist by prolific Indian pulpster Surender Mohan Pathak.

One of six novels by Pathak to be translated into English from the original Hindi, The 65 Lakh Heist is a scorching hot curry mixture of Parker, Wyatt, Nolan, and any other hardcore thief you want to throw in to spice things up. A robbery gone desperately and violently wrong novel, The 65 Lakh Heist, introduces charismatic criminal Vimal to English speaking audiences for the first time. Also known as Sardar, Surender, Singh, Sohal, and another dozen names used to camouflage his identity in the Mumbai underworld, Vimal is a Hindi Robin Hood—a clenched fist of a man constantly on the run from the law and other powerful criminals. 

Referred to as the father of Hindi pulp crime fiction, Surender Mohan Pathak has written close to 300 novels, including 60+ standalone thrillers, 120+ adventures of crime reporter Sunil, 22+ investigations of the Philosopher Detective Sudhir, and 42 of his anti-hero Vimal crime thrillers. 

While working a full-time job in Delhi with Indian Telephone Industries, Pathak began his writing career in the early 1960s translating Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and the works of James Hadley Chase into the Hindi language. His first original story, The Man 57 Years Old, was published in a Hindi crime fiction magazine in 1959, followed by his first full length novel, featuring the debut of his crime reporter series character Sunil, in 1963.

The character Sunil is a suave and principled investigative journalist working for the daily newspaper Blast. He lives in the metropolitan city of Rajnagar located on the coastline. Both the newspaper and the city are fictional, much the same as the city of Isola in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels.

Sunil has a weakness for damsels in distress, who seem to drop into his life with the regularity of the rising sun. In his 30s, Sunil is willing to go any lengths in pursuit of justice. He is aided by his best friend, nightclub owner, Ramakant Malhotra. 

Every strong character requires an equally strong nemeses. In Sunil’s case it is the iron-rodded, incorruptible Inspector Prabhudayal, who is in charge of the homicide division of the Rajnagar Police.

Nicknamed the philosopher detective, Sudhir Kumar Kohli is another of Pathak’s series protagonists.  Told in the first person, the Kohli tales are the diametric opposite of those in the Sunil series. Calling himself The Hammer of Delhi, Kohli constantly manipulates Inspector Devender Kumar Yadav, who has no problem selling his dishonesty. There is one novel in the Kohli series, The Last Goal, which has been translated into English. 

However, it is Vimal, the scourge of the Mumbai underworld, who has become Pathak’s most popular character. It took three novels, two different publishers, and another publisher virtually blackmailed into publishing the third Vimal book, before Pathak’s breakout moment occurred. But once Vimal—the first fictional anti-hero in India—caught the public consciousness, the series shot up the Indian bestseller lists, bringing Pathak’s other characters along for the wild ride.

Other Hindi pulp writers have attempted to emulate Pathak’s success. Several of them have been accused of plagiarizing or borrowing heavily from Pathak’s books. However, none have achieved Pathak’s unparalleled success.

If you’re looking for something different yet familiar to spice up your pulp reading, Vimal is the man to see for the job.



The book that launched a whole genre of anti-hero Hindi crime fiction—Vimal never wanted to get involved in the heist. But he's been roped in and only hopes he can finish the job without getting caught. His partners have other plans, however, and soon Vimal finds himself playing a deadly game with the kingpin of the Punjab underworld...First published in 1977 and reprinted over fifteen times, The 65 Lakh Heist is the first of Surender Mohan Pathak's hugely popular Vimal series to be translated in to English. 


An explosive plan one bullet away from disaster. A grizzled old card shark who wants to pull one last job before he retires from his life of crime. A security officer with a dangerous penchant for gambling. A hot-blooded beauty who judges a man by the thickness of his wallet. And Vimal—a man so desperate for a future, he's willing to commit Daylight Robbery.


Vimal, a man with many faces and numerous names, was an escaped convict fit to be recaptured and hanged. But, after many years, Vimal has decided to abandon his past and settle down as a family man. But his nemesis Mayaram Bawa comes back from the grave to destroy him, his sole ambition being to go down in history as the man who tamed the invincible Vimal. From the bestselling forty-novel strong Vimal series by the king of crime fiction Surender Mohan Pathak, comes Framed, a page-turner you won’t be able to resist.


Taxi driver Jeet Singh is cruising for fare when a man being tailed by a bunch of goons blocks his way. Entrusting Jeet Singh with a briefcase full of secret, classified government documents, the man asks Jeet to deliver them instead of a huge sum to a girl in Jogeshwari. The man than jumps from Jeet Singh’s moving taxi. The next morning, the man’s dead body is found by the railway track in a Mumbai suburb. To complicate matters, Jeet Singh finds the girl he was supposed to deliver the briefcase to is also dead. When Jeet Singh opens the briefcase, a free-for-all over diamonds worth millions is set into motion. From the badshah of crime writing comes another blockbuster novel, Diamonds are for All.


Jeet Singh’s ex-girlfriend Sushmita’s rich industrialist husband is brutally stabbed to death. Her stepchildren destroy all evidence of her marriage to their slain father, and implicate her in the murder along with Jeet Singh. Known to be able to open any safe in the country, Jeet Singh takes it upon himself to clear their names and solve the murder. Voted the most popular book of 2014 in Indian Writing, Cobra Conspiracy is a whodunit to keep you guessing all the way. 


The moment I had my first glance of Mathur’s mansion, I had to concede Madan had not exaggerated while describing his riches. It was a palatial structure fit only to be abode of a king. Money is God for a poor man. But for a rich man, the role of money is very restricted. In the life of a rich man, a stage comes when money becomes a useless commodity. When its only utility left is to make it an instrument of earning more money. A rich man laments God didn’t bestow him with ten mouths and twenty stomachs, as he cannot sip silver as drink, he cannot eat gold as food, cannot chew diamonds or rubies or pearls. That might be the reason the men with money make the most vulgar display of it in raising a mansion and in the marriage of their children where no expenditure is ever enough.


With the permission of my friend and respected columnist Bob Byrne (THE PUBLIC LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES), I'm reposting his recent BLACK GATE column, which takes a refreshing look at one of Robert E. Howard's most maligned Conan stories from a totally different perspective...Was REH the true father of the police procedural? Read on...


Reportedly, Ernest Hemingway bet Howard Hawks the director couldn’t make a good movie out of his worst book. Hawks took the bet and we ended up with Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not (it’s not Bogie’s best, but I vote Hawks the winner of the bet). Suppose I told you I could show you that one of what’s commonly considered among the worst Conan stories isn’t really that bad—and that it’s a pre-genre police procedural? Ready to take on the challenge?

In 2015, Black Gate‘s Discovering Robert E. Howard series showcased the breadth and diversity of REH’s writings. Boxing stories, westerns, science fiction, Solomon Kane, El Borak: Howard was an immensely talented author who wrote in a variety of genres. My first entry in the series was about Steve Harrison (CLICK HERE), Howard’s take on the hardboiled private eye with a weird menace twist. As you can read in that essay, Howard didn’t care for the genre and he abandoned it almost as quickly as he entered it. Today, I’m going to look at his lone police procedural. Yep—Robert E. Howard wrote a police procedural before the term was even in use. And it features Conan!

The general consensus is that Howard hit the mark with his fourth Conan story, The Tower of the Elephant, published in March of 1933. His first was The Phoenix on the Sword, which appeared in Weird Tales in December of 1932 and was a rewrite of an unpublished Kull story, By This Axe I Rule. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, rejected the second, The Frost Giant’s Daughter, which to me, reads more like a chapter in a longer work than a self-contained story.

The God in the Bowl was probably written in early 1932 and was Howard’s third Conan story. Wright rejected this one as well and it did not see print in any form until an edited version by L. Sprague de Camp was published in 1952’s Space Science Fiction, Volume 1, Number 2 (the story has nothing to do with either space or science fiction). De Camp did less chopping on this one than most of his Conan edits, but fans could finally read Howard’s original text in Donald Grant’s The Tower of the Elephant in 1975.

He next wrote his world-shaping essay, The Hyborian World, which many feel gave him a framework that contributed to The Tower of the Elephant being such a fine story.

Okay—moving on from Conan for a bit...


It’s easy to track the beginning of the hard-boiled genre to Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett in the pages of Black Mask Magazine in 1922 and 1923. The police procedural’s beginning is not quite so clearly delineated. You could argue for novels here and there, like 1868’s The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. Sergeant Cuff is a police detective, but I wouldn’t call this a procedural.

Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret—which you know is currently being adapted in a series of TV movies because you used to love The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes column here at Black Gate (CLICK HERE)—who first appeared in 1931, is a policeman, but he essentially functions as an independent protagonist. There were novels here and there, such as Lawrence Treat’s V as in Victim and Hillary Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing, but these came after The God in the Bowl.

Police procedurals actually gained their footing due to radio shows such as Dragnet and films like The Street With No Name (a classic). Today, police procedurals are far more commonly linked to television shows than books.

Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) began his popular 87th Precinct series in 1956 and that’s as good a point as any to identify as the establishment of the police procedural in fiction. A few years later, Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall created Danish police detective Martin Beck, which further entrenched the genre. Tony Hillerman, who I have previously written about (CLICK HERE), wrote procedurals featuring the Navajo Tribal Police.

But in 1932, Robert E. Howard was, once again, ahead of his time.

The police procedural differs from the detective-driven mystery, whether that private investigator is Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade. In the classical and hard-boiled schools of mystery fiction, the detective worked outside of the authorities, usually holding back information from the police.

We’re used to seeing the private eye/police officer dichotomy: Sherlock Holmes/Inspector Lestrade, Sam Spade/Lt. Dundee, Adrian Monk/Captain Stottleymer, Hercule Poirot/Inspector Japp, et al. The detective solves the crime while the police follow along, never able to work things out themselves. In the police procedural, it’s the cops that go through the step-by-step process of breaking a case.

In a procedural, the detective is a member of the force and they must follow the rules and regulations required of them. Though, of course, those can vary by time and locale. In one of the early Nero Wolfe books (I know, not a police procedural), Archie watches someone he turned in to the police get worked over in the basement by a cop. That was the norm of the time, though Rex Stout was less obvious about it in future stories.

The policeman doesn’t solve the crime by knowing what kind of mud can only be found in a certain part of town, and he generally doesn’t make some brilliant deduction a normal investigator couldn’t. Crime scenes are examined, questions are asked and set routines are followed. I think of it as grunt work. It’s not called a procedural for nothing.

The stories aren’t just about the policemen and the processes they go through to solve a crime, but they’re about the world they work in, from the station house to the streets they protect. In that way, the genre does resemble the hard-boiled school, which was as much about the mean streets the detectives strode down as about the detectives themselves. We certainly get a look at what justice was like in Conan’s Nemedia.

So, can we look at The God in the Bowl, a Conan story, and see the elements of a police procedural? Yes, we can. And with a weird menace element, of course. We’re talking about Robert E. Howard here.


We’re about to discuss a 17-page story. If you want to go read it (CLICK HERE), it won’t take you long. The nature of this post is that it is essentially a spoiler, so you’re on your own as far as responsibility goes. Here’s the opening:

Arus the watchman grasped his crossbow with shaky hands, and he felt beads of clammy perspiration on his skin as he stared at the unlovely corpse sprawling on the polished floor before him. It is not pleasant to come upon Death in a lonely place at midnight.

Man! I read a lot, and nobody writes like REH did. Arus is the night guard at Kallian Publico’s Temple (museum), in the Nemedian city of Numalia. Now, we all know how creepy museums seem at night. Here we’ve got a hired sword unexpectedly coming across an unlovely corpse. And not just any body, this is Kallian himself.

From the description, it appears that Kallian had been poisoned or strangled. Before Arus can get his mental footing, a huge, nearly naked, young Conan comes out of an adjoining room. Arus, likely all but peeing in his pants at the sight of this huge savage, accuses Conan of killing Kallian and pulls the hanging rope that sounds an alarm outside.


Almost immediately, five men of the city watch, armed to the teeth, enter the room, led by a sixth. This last is Demetrio, Chief of the Inquisitorial Council. The watch defers to him, including their leader, Dionus, the Prefect of Police. For all intents and purposes, Demetrio is a member of the watch for this story.

There are three policemen of note in this story: Demetrio, Dionus and another watchman named Posthumo. All the others are merely armed fodder. Think of them as red-shirted security officers from Star Trek.

Dionus immediately establishes himself as a stereotypical bully. When asked if he killed Kallian, Conan shakes his head but refuses to answer aloud. When berated by Demetrio, Conan replies that he is no dog. Dionus exclaims: 

“Oh, an insolent fellow! An independent cur! One of those citizens with rights, eh? I’ll soon knock it out of him! Here, you! Come clean!”

We already know what kind of policeman he is.

Demetrio steps in and takes charge of the questioning. He asks several relevant questions of the museum guard, Arus. Dionus breaks in, showing his true colors again.

“Why go to all the trouble of questions and speculations. It’s much easier to beat a confession out of a suspect. Here’s our man, no doubt about it. Let’s take him to the Court of Justice. I’ll get a statement if I have to mash his bones to a pulp.”

Conan is not intimidated by the official force. When Demetrio asks what he has to say, Conan replies:

“That any man who touches me will quickly be greeting his ancestors in hell.”

When Demetrio begins to threaten Conan, he is cut off abruptly by the Cimmerian. 

“Save your bullying for the fools who fear you. I’m no city-bred Nemedian to cringe before your hired dogs. I’ve killed better men than you for less than this.”

We have clearly established three characters: the good cop, the bad cop and the thief. Dionus reminds me of Lieutenant Com Noonan of the State Police in the Nero Wolfe story, Door to Death. His primary conversational contribution is to let Wolfe and Archie know that if it were up to him he would take them to the state barracks as material witnesses and presumably work them over.

Dionus is a one-dimensional heavy who serves to show how little justice the common person could expect to receive from the police of Numalia. He is a loudmouthed bully and he has that role only in the story.

As we’ll see, Demetrio is actually a competent policeman. He asks relevant questions, reconstructs events and leads the investigation. Up to a point, it’s reasonable to think of him as the story’s protagonist.

There’s one other watch member we’ll encounter, Posthumo. He is merely a rank and file version of Dionus, contributing nothing beyond bullying a helpless citizen. Dionus could have served the role just as well. I’m not sure why Howard included Posthumo, other than to show that the men serving under Dionus are no better than he is.


Conan is, of course, the thief. He played that role in this story and the next, The Tower of the Elephant. Dionus is convinced he is the murderer. Demetrio, who is willing to look at the facts and then come to a conclusion, isn’t so sure. Demetrio is Holmes to Dionus’ Lestrade (actually a bit unfair to Lestrade, but you get the point).

Back to the story—The situation is tense. The rank and file police expect Demetrio to order them to seize the barbarian. I imagine they aren’t too keen on the prospect. But the Inquisitor knows that there will be much bloodshed if they try to take Conan by force. It might even go the wrong way. Also, he still has doubts that Conan is guilty. He is clearly a much better cop than Dionus. He continues the discussion, getting Conan to recount his movements.

When Arus makes a clueless statement about Cimmerians, Demetrio dismisses him out of hand. Demetrio continues the interrogation, coaxing Conan into admitting that he had come to steal something from the museum. He’s doing a pretty good job of investigating.

Dionus, always consistent, jumps in again.

“And to kill Kallian Publico. By Mitra, we’ve hit it. Grab him, men! We’ll have a confession before morning!”

Dionus has a role to play, but he certainly is a cardboard cutout.

Conan whips out his sword and it’s clear he is not intimidated.

“Back if you value your dog lives!,” he snarled, his blue eyes blazing. “Because you dare to torture shop-keepers and strip and beat harlots to make them talk, don’t think you can lay your fat paws on a Hillman! I’ll take some of you to hell with me. Fumble with your bow, watchman—I’ll burst your guts with my heel before the night’s work is over!”

Conan was raised in the bleak northlands of Cimmeria. He may be a thief, but he is also a scarred warrior who will bow before no man. Dionus (and Posthumo, who we’ve not actually met yet) are completely ineffectual versus him. What we have is a contest between Demetrio and Conan. That is at the heart of this story.

Demetrio wants to solve a murder and he has corralled a thief (you can’t exactly call Conan captured at the moment)—there may be two totally unrelated crimes here.

The Inquisitor orders Dionus to call off his men, telling the prefect he’s not convinced Conan is the murderer. He also whispers, “You fool, wait until we can summon more men, or trick him into laying down his sword.” Demetrio wants to keep things on an intellectual plain, not a physical one. As we’ll see, that’s a savvy approach.


After failing to get Conan to lay down his sword, Demetrio wonders why the barbarian would strangle Publius, instead of using his sword.

Dionus contributes nothing useful as usual, muttering, “Perhaps to divert suspicion.”

Again, we’re reminded of the smart private eye and the less intelligent police officer. Except here it’s the smart cop and the dumb cop. Demetrio continues gathering evidence to weigh against Conan’s story and tries to figure out the likely course of events which transpired.

Demetrio then feels the body to determine the time of death and analyzes Conan’s timetable, establishing that either the man is innocent or lying.

Demetrio is clearly the only actual detective in the story, even though he isn’t in fact a policeman. After speculating on the possible murder weapon, he recreates Kallian’s movements during the attack on the dead man. Throughout the story, he is the only one to impress the reader with his intelligence and acumen.

Dionus is growing boring to the reader, tossing in, “And if the heathen isn’t the murderer, where is he?” You can almost tune him out.

Demetrio hears a chariot stopping nearby and orders the guards to bring the driver, as well as Kallian’s chief clerk, who lives nearby. Enaro, Publico’s charioteer, is a powerfully built dark-skinned man and a debtor slave. He shows no remorse at his master’s demise.

Promero, a small, timid looking man, is a spineless clerk and cries out, “Oh, I knew evil would come of this,” when he sees Kallian’s body. Instead, yell out, ‘Please beat me brutally until I tell you what I know.

Enaro accounts for his whereabouts, while Promero is obviously lying. Demetrio lets Dionus loose on the clerk and the Prefect signals to Posthumo, one of his men. Enaro comments that Posthumo gouged out a girl’s eye in the Court of Justice because she wouldn’t give information incriminating her lover.

Posthumo makes Dionus look like an intellectual. 

“I always get what I go after!” bellowed the guardsman, the veins in his thick neck swelling, and his face growing purple….”Speak up, you rat!”

He then slaps Promero terrifically on one side of his face, then the other, after which he tosses him to the floor and kicks him. The broken clerk begs him to stop, offering to tell all that he knows.

“Then get up, you cur,” roared Posthumo, swelling with self-importance.

Of course, Dionus has to show his colors again. He glances at Conan.

You see what happens to those who cross the police?”

The barbarian is as impressed as one would expect.

The Cimmerian spat with a sneer of cruel contempt for the moaning clerk. “He’s a weakling and a fool,” he growled. “Let one of you touch me and I’ll spill his guts on the floor.

Early Conan was a bit less eloquent than he would later be.

“Are you ready to talk?” asked Demetrio tiredly. He found these scenes wearingly monotonous.


I think a major weakness in the story is that Promero gives a long exposition in which we learn that an ancient, round sarcophagus had arrived from Stygia, to be delivered to Kalanthes, a priest of Ibis. Of course, Ibis is an enemy of Set, so something seems odd.

Kallian was determined to open the sarcophagus and steal whatever treasure was inside. He would hide the treasure, then discover the theft the following morning, having the Arus the guard crucified after accusing him of being the inside man for the theft.

It definitely moves the story forward, in that we know why Kallian was there after hours and gives us an actual object to focus the investigation on. But the police gain this information by doing nothing more than beating up a meek accountant. It is too easy. It may well have been a necessary device, but it doesn’t feel up to the standards of Howard.


Dionus orders a search of the entire museum, as he believes that if Conan isn’t the murderer, the killer must still be on the premises. This is actually good police work and I’m surprised Demetrio hadn’t thought of it earlier. Of course, Dionus’ motivation is to hang the crime on Conan, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it was a logical and called-for step. Sadly, this is his lone moment of competence.

The Prefect also makes an interesting point about Nemedian justice—Killing a commoner results in one being sentenced to hard labor in the mines. Killing a tradesman is a hanging offense. And killing rich man like Kallian results in burning (presumably a public spectacle). Justice isn’t blind—but she’s winking one eye.

Conan admits someone gave him a map of the museum and told him where to find a Zamorian diamond goblet, but he refuses to name his employer.

An unnamed policeman says he has found the murder weapon, a thick, black, splotched cable, in the next room. But it’s gone when they go in to see it and Demetrio dismisses the man’s claim. Friends have told me they figured it out at this point, but I didn’t. I probably should have, as Howard has played fair and given us all the clues needed to solve Kallianâ’s killing. Guess I didn’t have my deerstalker on (I do have one, naturally).

Demetrio seems to be tiring of the whole evening and is ready to go home.

“No, I tell you, Conan didn’t commit the murder. I believe the real murderer killed Kallian to secure whatever was in the Bowl, and is hiding now in some secret nook in the Temple. If we can’t find him, we’ll have to put the blame on the barbarian, to satisfy Justice...

There is absolutely an essay on justice, policemen, and culture in this short speech from Demetrio, which deserves to be explored by somebody up to the task.

However, something happens and Demtrio’s comments are cut off. But, I think, this is a really notable moment in the story, and—again—I’d like to see a real Howard scholar (as opposed to me) explore it.

Demtrio has arguably been the protagonist thus far. He’s certainly the only admirable character from the law enforcement ensemble. Since Conan has just stood there, said he didn’t kill Kallian and has threatened to kill anybody who bothers him, he’s not exactly the story’s center.

But there is no way we can make Demetrio the hero of the story now. He’s certain Conan didn’t commit the murder, but hey, somebody’s gotta hang. And if Demetrio can’t find who actually killed the museum owner, well, then, the foreigner caught in the wrong place at the wrong time will have to do. Demetrio isn’t a good(ish) guy anymore. He’s a corrupt policeman with almost absolute authority (standard villain hallmarks). And he’s going to railroad an innocent (well, of the crime at hand, anyways) man to execution. The whole story has pivoted at this moment.

There absolutely is an essay on justice, policemen and culture in th short speech above from Demetrio that should be explored by somebody up to the task.


Promero comes back into the room and reveals the Bowl bears the mark of the Stygian sorcerer, Thoth-amon. The master of the dark arts had obviously sent some deadly horror to kill Kalenthes, his enemy, and Kallian released it.

Howard shows a spark of humor here as Promero’s wild-eyed hysteria is cut short: 

You gibbering fool!” roared Dionus disgustedly, striking him heavily across the mouth. Dionus was a materialist, with scant patience for any speculations.

Dionus then tells Demetrio the only option is to arrest Conan, who interrupts him and says that he saw a long dark shadow slithering across the floor of the Bowl room. Promero panics again and Posthumo tosses him into the other room where the shadow was seen.

Dionus seems to be ready to arrest Conan, who in turn is ready to spill some blood, when a guardsman enters, dragging a richly dressed man who turns out to be Aztrias Petanius, the city governor’s nephew. Aztrias explains he had been passing by after a night of revelry and Dionus tells him they have the man who is doubtless guilty.


Quite a few of my REH friends and acquaintances don’t care for this story, including Black Gate Managing Editor, Howard Andrew Jones. As far as Conan stories go, it’s been rather dull on the action scale. A guard found the owner of a museum murdered. Conan had been there to steal something and when the police were summoned, he was the only suspect. Up to this point, there’s been a whole lot of standing around, talking. We haven’t even seen any blood spilled (the murdered man was strangled).

I’m not saying looking at The God in the Bowl as a pre-genre police procedural makes it a Robert E. Howard classic. However, when putting it within the proper context, what you’ve got is a workmanlike procedural with a couple of interesting characters—Demetrio and Conan. And things are absolutely about to pick up. What Howard has done to this point is set up a blistering Conan action scene, leading to a supernatural Hyborian finale. Instead of being bored with a non-action Conan story so far, credit Howard for having managed to enmesh Conan in a police procedural, which is about to shift gears into an action sword and sorcery tale.


A vicious looking brute! How can any doubt his guilt? I have never seen such a villainous countenance before.”

And now we have a very angry barbarian on our hands. A standard trope in the crime caper is having the thieves fall out. Conan reveals it was Aztrias who hired him to steal the goblet and who had been waiting outside to receive it from Conan. He demands Aztrias vouch for his entry into the museum, eliminating him as a murder suspect.

Demetrio, a practical man, tells Aztrias if Conan’s assertions are true, the attempted theft can be hushed up and while Conan is due ten years of hard labor for house-breaking, an escape can be arranged. Everything will be kept quiet for the governor’s nephew.

A man’s life can rest on one crucial decision. Aztrias has two very clear choices. He went with:

I know him not. He is mad to say I hired him. Let him take his just desserts. He has a strong back and the toil in the mines will be well for him.”

He’d probably like to have that one back, though he doesn’t have long to rue his decision.

Conan drops his head, seemingly resigned to his fate. Keep in mind, there has been zero action in the story so far. I mean, none. But now, we get the Robert E. Howard we normally associate with Conan (again—this was only his third try at writing the character).

He struck with no more warning than a striking cobra; his sword flashed in the candle light. Aztrias shrieked and his head flew from his shoulders in a shower of blood, the features frozen in a white mask of horror. Catlike Conan wheeled and thrust murderously for Demetrio’s groin. The Inquisitor’s instinctive recoil barely deflected the point which sank into his thigh, glanced from the bone and ploughed out through the outer side of the leg. Demetrio went to his knee with a groan, unnerved and nauseated with agony.

Wow! As I’ve said many times before, I think Robert E. Howard remains the best fantasy writer I’ve ever read. This story just absolutely exploded. In the next paragraph, Conan slices off one of Dionus’ ears and gouges out one of Posthumo’s eyes. After, he nearly puts his sandaled foot through Arus’ stomach and then he kicks him in the mouth.

The wretch screamed through a ruin of splintered teeth, blowing bloody froth from his mangled lips.

I also like how Posthumo—who had gouged out a woman’s eye because she didn’t give him some information he wanted (likely he was demanding false testimony)—has his own eye gouged out by Conan. That’s irony.

We are done with the police procedural—it’s over. Normally, at this stage (well, actually, before the sword attack), the police would arrest the culprit. We have moved into the realm of the sword and sorcery story now. Howard has given us a violent melee combat and now he will move us forward and solve the mystery. And to do so he’ll go deep into the history of Stygia, the Egyptian-like culture built on dark sorcery.

A terrifying scream comes from the next room and Promero, sobbing like an idiot, comes into the room. All action is arrested. Again, Howard knows how to put words together:

All halted to stare at him aghast—Conan with his dripping sword, the police with their lifted bills, Demetrio crouching on the floor and striving to staunch the blood that jetted from the great gash in his thigh, Dionus clutching the bleeding stump of his severed ear, Arus weeping and spitting out fragments of broken teetheven Posthumo ceased his howls and blinked whimpering through the bloody mist that veiled his half-sight.

I mean, c’mon. That is some fantastic writing!


Promero babbles about a god with a long neck and dies. Horror sweeps over those in the room and they all flee, with the exception of Conan. Posthumo is knocked down and trampled by his colleagues, but crawls along after them. I find it a satisfying exit for the thuggish policeman. The group hurtles into the street, panicking the guards outside, who also flee.

Conan, alone, strides into the next room and above a screen sees the inhumanly beautiful face of one of the god-men who ruled Stygia long ago. Conan leaps and slashes with his sword. The head topples to the side and the snake-body it had been attached to writhes and thrashes until it too dies. Conan has slain one of the ancient Children of Set (I think: the text is a little confusing to me). Even the hardy barbarian has seen too much and he flees from the city.


Just as Howard had written hard boiled private eye stories with a Sax Rohmer flavor via his Steve Harrison tales, he actually wrote a police procedural (before the term existed) with Conan. Demetrio seems to be a fairly honest cop, trying to solve the murder of a prominent citizen. While he is the most intelligent person in the story, his professional ethics are a bit lacking.

Dionus and Posthumo are the crooked bully cops who beat confessions out of suspects. Aztrias is the rich citizen largely above the law, though not beyond savage justice. Conan is the common thief abused by everyone of any stature. Arus is the private officer looked down upon by the official force.

Demetrio tries to work out what really happened using traditional methods. He doesn’t have flashes of insight or draw on exotic knowledge. Sadly, his inclination to cut corners with justice puts an innocent man on edge and the sudden outburst of violence is both breathtaking and unfortunate for almost every named character.

This is very much a closed-environment procedural, which I think it could be turned into a play. All of the action takes place in a hallway and one adjacent room. Combined with the copious amounts of talking, this is likely a major reason why it seems like most Conan fans do not care for this story. It is quite different from every other one Howard wrote.

But The God in the Bowl can be considered a very early police procedural, written over two decades before Ed McBain began to dominate the genre. As such, the story works better than merely as an early Conan tale. As I mentioned in my Steve Harrison article, Howard did not like the hard-boiled genre and abandoned it quickly. Likewise, I am not aware of any other story he wrote that could be classified as a police procedural. In fact, the very next Conan story was a crime caper.

As we highlighted here at Black Gate with our Discovering Robert E. Howard series, the man had an amazing breadth. With this look at The God in the Bowl, we can add one more category to his amazing diversity.

With the atmospheric opening, the constant theme of the civilized man bullying the primitive savage, the character of Demetrio, the lore of ancient Hyboria, the inclusion of Thoth-Amon, the explosiveness of the action and the exotic finish, The God in the Bowl might not be one of the best Conan stories, but  it isn’t as bad as commonly credited. I believe it can stand up against its predecessor, The Frost Giant’s Daughter. Of course, both were rejected by Weird Tales and neither was published during Howard’s sadly shortened lifetime…