Sunday, November 09, 2008

Conan the Detective

While I was looking for the Robert E. Howard historical fiction stories mentioned below I happened across another story I hadn't read, with the absolutely terrific title of Names in the Black Book. This is one of Howard's few forays into detective fiction, a genre he didn't at all care for, but one that he sometimes attempted. Howard says "I can scarcely stand to read a detective story, let alone write one."
I've read a couple of his other crime yarns featuring tough guy detective Steve Harrison. You can tell that REH wasn't much for detective fiction. The three of his Harrison stories that I've read have more to do with his usual sort of adventure story than with whodunits.
The one I read today, Names in the Black Book, could very easily have been another historical adventure really. The Oriental mean gangster Erlik Khan is out for revenge against the people who betrayed him in an earlier Harrison story. He writes their names in his book of the dead with crimson ink on black pages, thus the title. Khan is sort of a poor man's Fu Manchu. Howard was a big reader of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books and he created several "yellow peril" villains. Khan sends scorpions and snakes and assassins clad in black silk robes after the good guys. Harrison is eventually captured but escapes with the aid of an Afghan warrior right out of one of REH's El Borak stories. I kid you not. In the final third of the story, Harrison and the Afghan hold off all of Erlik Khan's minions with a mace and a sword respectively. It really does turn into a Conan yarn for all intents and purposes. And Harrison himself? You guessed it. Black hair, massive muscles, and "cold blue eyes." I'm starting to think that Cormac Fitzgeoffrey was a direct descendant of Conan and Steve Harrison a descendant of both earlier heroes.
Anyway, Names in the Black Book isn't one for people who like to wonder who killed Professor Plum in the library, but if you want a rip-snorting, two fisted detective story, you could do worse. In fact, now that I think of it, in some ways Howard's hero Harrison prefigures Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer. Though Spillane points up Caroll John Daly's Race Williams as being his main influence for Mike Hammer, I suppose it's possible that he might have read the Steve Harrison yarns as well.


Steven R. Harbin aka coachhollywood67 said...

Even though Howard said he didn't care for detective stories, some of his stuff has a definite "hard boiled" feel to it. One of my favorites is the Conan story, "Rogues in the House" which to me reads stylistically a lot like a Dashiell Hammett "Continental Op" story. In the the book "The Dark Barbarian" Herron has an article about how Howard brought a lot of the "hard boiled" school of writing into fantasy. I think the article is under a pen name, but it's by Herron. Worth looking up, for anyone interested.
Regarding the Steve Harrison stories, I really like them even though they don't come close to REH's best work. At the risk of sounding cliched, they're fun to read.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yep, I remember that essay well, Steve, and I definitely agree about the Hammett comparison.