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‘Death in a Lonely Place at Midnight’
The God in the Bowl by Robert E. Howard
© 2013 James LaFond
Written in 1932 or 33, first published in The Tower of the Elephant in 1975, and comprising pages 41-58 in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.
The God in the Bowl has always been one of my favorite Conan stories. Conan as a young defiant thief getting caught up in a murder investigation, and implicated by his sense of honor, appealed to me greatly as a boy. I like it a little less than I did as a teenager, but it still has much appeal.
Atmospherically speaking The God in the Bowl is classic Howard. To me it seems more like a supernatural crime story, as if some big hillbilly who had landed in New York had been hired to steal a museum piece, and ended up caught up in a murder mystery. This is the most heavily dependent upon dialogue of any Conan story I can recall. The action is slim, tight, and not in the least gratuitous.
Howard’s resentment of the wealthy elite is strong in this piece, as is his hatred of corrupt police and ‘the good old boy network’. The supporting cast is well done, with characters hostile, neutral, and sympathetic to Conan’s plight. The story is set in the shadowy nighted museum of a rich aristocrat. The characters are all male and represent every segment of society except royalty and slave. The tone of the dialogue is best reflected in the following line uttered by Dionus, a cruel burley guardsmen who has already tortured one cringing fellow, “Remember the law, my black-haired savage—you go to the mines for killing a commoner, you hang for killing a tradesman, and for murdering a rich man, you burn!”
The story is made complete—and it is a shame that it was not part of the original series—because the lurking sorcerer of Stygia, Toth-amon, a villain from the first Conan story, Phoenix on the Sword, has a hand in the horror. The God in the Bowl is Howard's most socially conscious Conan story, written with a seething anger at the perennial political order of Civilized Man.
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