Detective stories of Robert E. Howard

If the collection I have is to be believed, Howard wasn't a huge fan of detective stories, as he didn't like their formulaic structure. That might be considered somewhat ironic, as Howard himself wasn't a stranger for a formulaic structure himself. In either case, Howard did pen a couple of detective stories which aren't actually all that bad. His main super sleuth is Steve Harrison, a hard-boiled dick working in the Oriental quarters. The stories he stars in blend together the Howard trademark of horror, action and in these cases, police work.

Fangs of Gold; Or People of the Serpent Steve Harrison has chased a murderer, Woon Shang, to the edge of a dark, treacherous swamp. He is adamant of getting the man, as, besides murder, Shang has stolen ten thousand dollars, that would do the world of good to the granddaughter of the murdered man.

As the story furthers, it feels more and more like a core for a story, that could have been a Conan tale or for some other more fantastical hero of Howard's. The Swamp is, obviously, inhabited by reclusive voodoo worshippers and their current leader has ideas of his own for the criminal as well as the good detective.

Harrison is not going to have any flack preventing him to do his job though. He manages to get help from an unexpected source when he rescues the usurped voodoo priestess of the people, Celia Pompeloi, who is not, as you might expect, some old crone, but stunning beauty.

Fangs of Gold is probably one of those stories, which might seem a tad racist, especially because of the use of the dreaded n-word and that the swamp-dwelling voodoo worshippers are black. But then again, Harrison is hunting down Shang and the money, so that he can give it back to a Chinese girl and is even willing to bend the law in order to keep Celia out from prison because how she helps him. The dreaded word is also used in a dialogue of local white rednecks, not in the narrative or in the dialogue of Harrison himself.

That said, Fangs of Gold is a decent enough of a story. While it does at times feel like it is going towards the more typical action direction of Howard's, it manages to keep together to the end. Harrison manages to have his own personality, despite he might at first seem like a stock hero, as he is also a detective interested in keeping the law, not massacring people in wanton acts of self-defence. 

Names in the Black Book A string of murders has Joan La Tour rattled, as she believes they mark the return suspected to be dead crime lord Erlik Khan, whose demise she had a hand in. Her solution to the matter is to ask the only cop who gives a damn about the Oriental quarter, Harrison, to take look into it, as he had his hands in the matter as well.

Her evidence of the matter is a handwritten page containing the names of those dead as well as a couple of others. She swears, the scrip is of Erliks, as she has seen it before in his book of the dead, where he jotted down the names of those who were to die.

Harrison agrees to help her and to do that, he even agrees to enlist Khoda Khan, a grim Afghan suspected of murder. Khoda comes to the picture, as Joan believes him to be able protecting her. In this tale, Harrison is the one doing the sleuthing and Khoda has the role of being the more typical brawny hero of Howard's. His senses are almost supernatural and he is able of dispatching several henchmen alone in the style of Conan.

Names in the Black Book comes out as a bit more grounded story than many other Howard's tales. It doesn't really have a supernatural angel in it as everything in it has an explanation, including the death and return of Erlik Khan. This is, all in all, a good, fun story. While the detective part might be a tad slim, it is a decent vehicle for an interesting action adventure, where the stakes are higher than it seems at first.

Graveyard Rats Out of Howard's Harrison stories, this is the one that reads the most like a psychological horror story. Harrison has arrived at a small town to look for a murderer of one John Wilkinson when things take a frighting direction. The head of the buried deceased finds its way to a mantle of the house his brothers live in and they suspect it is his murderer who hs brought the head in. From here begins a night long chase, where Harrison needs to find a guilty party before more people get killed.

I'd rather not say more about the story itself, as it might end up spoiling it, especially if you are interested in reading it. It is probably the longest, and if not it is at least the most ambitious, of the Harrison stories Howard wrote. It is a splendid mix of hard-boiled detective story and a horror yarn, wherein a good fashion things start to open up the closer to the end you get.

If there is one story I'd recommend you to check out, it is Graveyard Rats, as it does feel like Howard had a good time writing it. It is a strong, well-written story with some nice twists and turns. It might have benefitted from a more proper novel length, but even as is, it is a solid story.

The Tomb's Secret; or the Teeth of Doom This time around, the name of the detective is Brock Rollins, but it might just be a name swap from Steve Harrison from some reason or another. The name of the game is a murder attempt of a noted philanthropist James Willoughby, who manages to escape from his fate in a nick of time. It doesn't take long for Brock Rollins to figure out, it is the Sons of Erlik behind the crime, now he just has to find out why.

If the previous stories had more of an action edge to them, Rollins actually does some fair amount of sleuthing before the case is closed. Of course, just as it is in the nature of the stories like these, there are some twists and turns before all is said and done.

The Tomb's Secret is a solid story on its own right. While Rollins isn't much of a character, the story itself is good and fun enough to carry his weight over the finishing line as well. The premises is intriguing and there are some bits and pieces in the story that are genuinely great, while the whole of it might be a tad so and so at times. It is by all counts entertaining story though.


  1. Detective stories did not pay that well. Hence the reason there are few Howard detective stories.

  2. That is a fair point. I'd imagine the detective genre was then, as it is now, quite crowded. It still is a shame, Howard didn't write more of them, as just as with his weird west stuff, I quite liked the idea of a mixture of weird fantasy and detective stuff.


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