Gumshoes, Gats and Gals: Robert E. Howard’s Detective and Crime Stories Essay
Between December 1933 and June 1936, a group of rather unusual Robert E. Howard stories were published: “Talons in the Dark” (1933), “The Tomb’s Secret” (1934), ‘‘People of the Serpent” (1934), “Names in the Black Book” (1934), “Graveyard Rats” (1936) and “Black Wind Blowing” (1936) were published in the magazines Strange Detective Stories, Super Detective Stories and Thrilling Mystery, which specialized in crime and detective stories.
These stories hold a special place in Howard’s work. Although they were published in magazines catering to the crime and detective markets, they were certainly a departure from Howard’s preferred writing subjects. Moreover, Howard’s personal opinion about his achievement in this genre is also noteworthy. In May 1936 he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft:
I have definitely abandoned the detective field, where I never had any success anyway, and which represents a type of story I actively detest. I can scarcely endure to read one, much less write one. (Means to Freedom Vol. 2, 953)
This statement raises several questions: why would Howard write anything in a genre he admitted to not only hating, but also not having a propensity for? Are Howard’s crime/detective stories actually ‘crime” stories in the way dictionaries define it? And if not, what are the differences? And lastly, are these stories really as bad as Howard regarded them?
For Howard, who wanted to make a living as a professional writer, the decision to splash other markets was not simply a logical one, but one based on painful necessity – the need for money. The pulps were a volatile market with magazines folding right and left under the weight of the Great Depression. Additionally, the pulps paid very little — anywhere from half a penny a word to five cents a word, with the majority of the pulps paying on the lower end of the scale. So the secret to earning a decent living writing for the pulps was quantity.
He was without a doubt versatile enough and had the necessary skills to be successful outside of fantasy and horror fiction. A look at his work in genres such as historical short stories about the crusaders, weird western tales, humorous westerns, boxing stories, and even his later work published in the “Spicy” magazines clearly demonstrate that Howard could write and deliver quality in a variety of environments.
By the time Howard began to write detective stories, the market was already dominated by stars like Dashiell Hammett and Carroll John Daly. Furthermore, the pulp magazines selling crime stories had a sufficient stock of experienced crime story writers available, writers who specialized in catering to the needs of their readers. All of this made the attempts of latecomers trying to enter this market a daunting task.
To get a foothold in the crime stories market, Howard used a method he was an expert at – mixing different genres. For Howard, that mix would be fantasy and horror genres he had superb experience writing in. The result of such a mixture though, would have probably created another “supernatural sleuth,” and that throne was already firmly held by Seabury Quinn and his Jules de Grandin series.
There is a high possibility that Howard’s literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline encouraged him to write detective stories. In a letter to Lovecraft, dated September 1933, Howard mentions that “Kline has been a big help in teaching me the technique of detective story writing” (A Means to Freedom Vol. 2, 634). This though is not sufficient proof that Kline was really involved in Howard’s decision to write crime stories.
Another possibility of why Howard might have felt confident in writing crime stories was his love of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories. According to Howard’s personal library inventory list, he possessed eight books by Sax Rohmer. Howard also wrote parodies of Fu Manchu stories (“Few Menchu” or “Fooey Mancucu”) (Collected Letters 1, 53-55, 139 – 142, 113 – 119), which he sent to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith (March 1925/October 1927/February 1929). This clearly indicates that Howard was very familiar with the stories about the Chinese villain. The influence of these Fu Manchu stories on Howard was so strong that some of Howard’s crime stories feature a Mongolian super-villain by the name of Erlik Khan that was obviously based on Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu.
In the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, “crime fiction” is defined as “the commission and detection of crime, with the motives, actions, arraignment, judgment, and punishment of a criminal is one of the greatest paradigms of narrative. Textualized theft, assault, rape and murder begin with the earliest epics, and are central to Classical and much subsequent tragedy.” (192)
Although it is widely assumed that the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” (1841) marked the origin of the crime fiction genre, this is actually not the case. According to the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory the first crime story can be traced back to the late 18th century to William Godwin’s “Caleb Williams” (1794). This new genre culminated in its first phase with the 1887 publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, which established the short story as the genre’s prominent form (a form also used by Howard).
The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory set the end of this “First Golden Age of Detection” in 1914. A Second Golden Age of crime fiction began in the late 1920s when female writers such as Agatha Christie successfully entered the stage. These women extended the short story to full novel length. In the United States crime fiction became popular via the pulp fiction market, where according to Ron Goulart, “the private eye was born in the early 1920s and flourished in the decades between the two World Wars” (Cheap Thrills, 89), with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler to be the most prominent writers in the field.
There seems to be direct opposition between the British “Golden Age” crime novels and those from the American hard-boiled style. British crime fiction in the vein of Agatha Christie is described as:
The classic Golden Age novels are hermetically sealed, typically by location in a country house (though any isolated setting will do), and structurally consist of a discovery (the body), a sequence of red herrings (a parade of suspects), and a denouement (the detective announces whodunit) (Dictionary 194)
One point of criticism of these British novels with their amateur detectives was the omitting of professional police crime investigations. This omission turned these novels into surrealistic artificial constructions.
A reaction to this British style of crime stories was American crime noir with their stark and violent stories, usually placed in grimy urban settings, featuring both lone but professional investigators and police. These tales also tended to blur the moral distinctions between criminals and agents of law enforcement.
Howard’s ability to write crime stories can be discovered in a rather unexpected place and time period: the early stories in the Conan of Cimmeria series contain many elements of a typical crime story; even some characteristics of the hard-boiled genre would eventually find their way into Howard’s crime stories. “The God in the Bowl” and “The Tower of the Elephant” are two perfect examples.
“The God in the Bowl,” which is chronologically the third story in the Conan series, has all the ingredients of a whodunit crime story: A mysterious murder in a secluded location, several suspects, a “Hyborian Age proto cop” and a morally ambiguous protagonist. “The Tower of the Elephant” starts out as the story of two thieves who try to burglar a mysterious tower that no other thief has ever dared to attempt.
It is hard to imagine that Robert E. Howard, whose stories’ trademarks are fast-paced action scenes, could have written crime stories in the vein of the British style, featuring refined and restrained amateur gentlemen detectives who solve their cases with passive observation and the calm accumulation of clues. When it came to writing crime, the American hard-boiled style with its violent action and morally ambiguous characters would seem to be a perfect fit for Howard.
A look at Howard’s crime/detective stories that were published during his lifetime demonstrate that they do indeed favor action and thrills over detailed descriptions of investigative strategies such as can be found in Dashiell Hammett’s “Continental Op” series.
In “Talons in the Dark” (titled “Black Talons” in its first pulp appearance); an African cult takes revenge for having been robbed of its gold. The story’s whodunit-plot is extremely constructed. The plot moves forward not through the gathering of evidence or the eliminating of possible suspects, but through events like abductions and killings. Other features of the story include its intense atmosphere, and the graphic descriptions of killings and threats of torture. These characteristics also make it possible to categorize “Talons in the Dark” as a horror story.
“People of the Serpent” (titled “Fangs of Gold” in its first pulp appearance) features detective Steve Harrison who hunts a Chinese criminal hiding in the swamps. This setting is an unexpected departure from a genre that usually takes place in a city. This hunt then turns into a confrontation with the leader of a Voodoo cult. Once again the story is not so much about investigating a crime by gathering evidence, as it is an excuse for fast paced action.
In “Teeth of Doom” (published as “The Tomb’s Secret” in its first pulp appearance) and “Names in the Black Book,” Howard takes a different approach highlighting the possible influence of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories. However, this time the villains are not African cults, but a Mongolian secret society known by the name of “Sons of Erlik.” “Teeth of Doom” suffers from a highly constructed plot. Its saving merits are a tense atmosphere and a well-written action scene that unfolds in a “lonely house on the outskirt of the city.” The detective featured in this story does not really investigate the case, but merely points out obvious facts. The story’s final twist reveals that a third player has manipulated the story’s protagonist. Considering the revelations at the end of “Teeth of Doom,” the story would better qualify as a secret agent thriller than a standard crime story.
“Names in the Black Book,” the sequel to the then-unpublished story “Lord of the Dead” (the Steve Harrison story was eventually published in 1981), features the Fu Manchu influenced Mongolian villain Erlik Khan, whom the protagonist had seemingly defeated in “Lord of the Dead.” In spite of the main character being a private detective and its urban setting in the Chinese quarter on “River Street,” the story can hardly be defined as a crime story. It is more accurately defined as an action story in which the survivors of “Lord of the Dead” try to avoid the revenge of Erlik Khan. What makes this story interesting is an action scene in which the main characters have barricaded themselves in a building under attack from Erlik Khan’s faceless minions. This is a scenario anticipating John Carpenter’s 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 where a group of people in a shuttered police station is under siege by gang members.
“Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing,” published in 1936 in the Thrilling Mystery magazine, feature such villains as a madman and a Satanist cult offering human sacrifices. Both stories lean more in the direction of horror than crime. What makes these otherwise forgettable stories nonetheless interesting is their setting in 20th century rural Texas. Howard had already written several weird western stories set in his native Texas and had indicated in letters to H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth that he was considering leaving the fantasy field in favor of westerns. In this context “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” can also be regarded as a possible experiment of Howard’s — an attempt to see how much he could use his native region as a stage for crime.
When comparing Howard’s published and rather unconventional crime stories with those that were rejected (“The Silver Heel,” “Black Moon,” “The Voice of Death” and “House of Suspicion”), an interesting fact emerges: all rejections actually fit well with the definition of “crime stories” provided above. Every one of them stick to the formulistic genre plot structure that start with the detection of a mystery/crime, followed by a parade of red herrings (a.k.a. possible suspects) and finishes with the crime or mystery being solved or explained.
The problem with these stories is that the solutions are too contrived to be believable, for example a hidden record player used to drive a person into madness as featured in “The Voice of Death.” A lack of action sequences is also not helpful in making already formulistic and overly constructed stories interesting.
This brings us to another special feature in Howard’s crime stories: The detectives and the private eyes.
The main characters in Howard’s stories of whatever genres were never passive, but always active, powerful forces. While a Miss. Marple or a Hercule Poirot patiently gathered evidence piece by piece, finally luring a suspect into unintentionally admitting his/her crime, Howard’s detectives mostly gather their evidence by fighting one co-conspirator after another until they face-off with the ultimate perpetrator. This does not mean that Howard’s detectives were not also capable of solving a mystery with intellect. This strategy was not included in the stories that were rejected by Strange Detective Stories, Super Detective Stories and Thrilling Mystery magazine.
The detectives of the hard-boiled style of Chandler or Hammett are hard smoking and drinking tough men who are at times violent and always appreciative of the sight of a curvy female body. The cities where they work are their territory, and they know their ways through the urban jungle. Hammett’s detectives in his “Continental Op” series know their good from their bad cops, as well as the good and bad crooks that provide them with the information necessary to solve their cases. There is one decisive point though that makes them different from Howard’s detectives:
Detectives Buckley, Steve Harrison and Brock Rollins (“Brock Rollins” never existed; this is the name the editors used instead of Steve Harrison when they published two Harrisons yarns in the same issue.) of Howard’s stories, although working in cities – the manifestation of civilization – are far from being products of civilization, but rather barbarians in 20th century clothes. “Brock Rollins,” the protagonist of “The Tomb’s Secret” is described like this:
Brock Rollins bulked big in the dingy back-room appointed for the meeting. His massive shoulders and thick body dwarfed his height. His cold blue eyes contrasted with the thick black hair that crowned his low broad forehead, and his civilized garments could not conceal the almost savage muscularity of his hard frame.” (‘The Tomb’s Secret,” 355, Exotic Writings of Robert E. Howard)
Dashiell Hammett on the other hand describes his most famous character, Sam Spade, in quite a different manner. Despite the hint of physical strength, his appearance is otherwise far from threatening, unlike Howard’s detective:
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller, v. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The v motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down—from high flat temples—in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond Satan. (…)
Spade rose bowing and indicating with a thick-fingered hand the oaken armchair beside his desk. He was quite six feet tall. The steep rounded slope of his shoulders made his body seem almost conical—no broader than it was thick—and kept his freshly pressed grey coat from fitting very well. (The Maltese Falcon)
This barbarism of Howard’s detectives is most evident in “Lord of the Dead.” Here detective Steve Harrison follows a suspect into the literal underworld of the city’s Chinese quarter, where he sheds his civilized 20th century self and changes into a savage barbarian. In the story’s climactic scene, which could have been written for a Kull or Conan story, Steve Harrison is facing the minions of the super-villain Erlik Khan. Bleeding, his clothes torn and with his back to the wall, the 20th century detective goes berserk and fights his enemies with a battle-axe. Although “Lord of the Dead” is superior to most of Howard’s published detective stories, featuring an exciting plot, a mysterious atmosphere and a well-described urban setting in form of the “Chinese quarter on River Street.”
Physical strength is a feature that Howard stresses in the description of all three detectives. Nonetheless this physical strength is actually of hardly any use to these men in their quest for crime solving. As has been pointed out, Howard’s detective stories certainly do not lack action. Most of the fights, however, are gunfights and not physical confrontations fought with bare hands or crude weapons. The strength of Howard’s detectives serves better to intimidate suspects into giving away their secrets than being actually used in physical confrontations.
Another notable point about the detectives in Howard’s crime stories is that when it comes to the decisive moment of solving the crime, they are actually not the ones who do it, but are mostly simple bystanders. In “The Tomb’s Secret” (or “Teeth of Doom”), Brock Rollins realizes that he has just been played by the Chinese secret service to help them thwart the plot of a Mongolian villain.
Detective Buckley in “Talons in the Dark” does not only admit to having suspected the wrong person, but also happens to be around only by coincidence when the real perpetrator divulges himself by boasting about his crime.
And in “People of the Serpent,” it is not Steve Harrison who is preventing a possible uprising of African-American inhabitants of a swamp, but a woman who Harrison happened to rescue during his primary mission of finding a Chinese criminal hiding there. It is also noteworthy that Harrison doesn’t even manage to bring the man out of the swamps alive. Having lost his handcuffs (!) and unintentionally having cut the ropes with which he had bound the suspect (!), Harrison shoots the man when he, not surprisingly, attempts to escape.
One possible reason why Howard felt that he couldn’t get into writing hard-boiled crime stories was his personal background of living in a rural environment, which made it difficult, perhaps even impossible for him to convincingly describe an urban setting. (This on the other hand might have also been the reason that he later tried to set the stage of his crime stories in a more familiar setting – rural Texas.) Howard was no hillbilly nor wholly unfamiliar with big cities, but unfortunately his experiences with big city life wouldn’t be sufficient enough to write convincingly of such places. He took trips to San Antonio, but the San Antonio culture full of Texas history was vastly different from the setting of urban jungles like Los Angeles, Hollywood, New York or San Francisco that were featured in the stories of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.
The only long period of time Howard spent in a big city environment was in early 1919 when his family had to stay for seven weeks in New Orleans where Dr. Howard attended a supplemental course for his medical practice (Finn, 49). Besides his first encounter with the Picts, this stay in New Orleans would be a memorable one for the thirteen year old Howard. During this visit, a spate of grisly murders occurred, committed by a killer the local press was quick to name after the tool he used for his crimes: “The Axman” (Finn 49). This mass murderer and his method of killing made an impression on young Howard who would later use an ax murderer in several of his horror stories, notably “Pigeons From Hell.”
Howard didn’t sell any detective stories in 1935, but in 1936 Kline sold two to Thrilling Mystery (“Graveyard Rats,” written in 1935″ and “Black Wind Blowing,” written between January and April 1936). This helped to offset the effects of not being paid by his primary market, Weird Tales magazine. Although Howard didn’t seem to mind at first that his payments were coming extremely late, this attitude changed when his mother’s health steadily worsened. Medical expenses that needed to be covered skyrocketed and in a heartbreaking letter, written in May 1935 (Collected Letters 3, 306) Howard literally begged Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright to pay him at least a fraction of the outstanding $800 the magazine owed him.
This leaves us now with our final question: Are Howard’s crime stories really as bad as their author’s critique makes them out to be?
Regarded strictly from a business perspective, it is difficult to say that Howard’s self-assessment of being unsuccessful was correct: If one considers Howard’s “real” detective stories (those ones coming somehow close to as the genre is defined in literary dictionaries), the result would be that six out of nine stories were sold. This is certainly not a bad cut.
On the other hand, if one very generously combined these same stories with those described as “weird menace” (crime stories in the broadest meaning featuring fantastic or supernatural elements) one will have a corpus of 21 stories. Here the result looks drastically different: Out of these 21, only six were published during Howard’s lifetime. Considering the time and effort it must have taken Howard to write them, such low sales numbers would justify his harsh self-criticism.
So, where does this leave us with our assessment of Howard’s skill when it comes to writing crime stories? Readers hoping to find regular crime stories in the style of hard-boiled classics like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade novels or his Continental Op stories will without doubt be disappointed. The same applies to those readers expecting the British style of detective stories featuring characters such as Miss. Marple, Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes.
Howard certainly did not reinvent, redefine or add anything new to the crime stories genre, but he definitely put his very own spin on it. Howard’s stories are quite different from the “whodunit” formula the genre is famous and popular for. The mystery or mysterious incident which is the catalyst of a regular crime story, and whose solution is central to the crime story is in Howard’s stories mostly incidental and acts more as a starting point for a series of action scenes executed in a tense atmosphere more typical of horror.
Although Howard’s crime stories are not on the same artistic level as others he is famous for, this does not mean that they are of inferior quality. They stand out as the attempts of a young writer trying to break into a new market by experimenting with a genre he was unfamiliar with. The results are mostly well-written, entertaining crime stories with a heavy touch of REH’s personality. This touch is exactly the reason that they do not quite fit into the framework of how the crime genre defines itself. And in all honesty – isn’t that what we would expect from our favorite writer from Cross Plains, Texas and why we enjoy his work so much.
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