This is one of the shorter Conan pieces. It was probably the third Conan story Howard wrote and one of the few rejected by Farnsworth Wright when he submitted it to Weird Tales. It wouldn’t see publication until years after Howard’s death.
This story has always been one of my favorite Conan tales. It’s unique in that it’s at heart a police procedural, and a rather good one, even if it does have some stereotypical good cop-bad cop interplay. It’s also something of a locked room mystery.
Conan has broken into a museum of sorts, having been commissioned to steal a particular artifact. Instead he finds the night watchman bending over the corpse of the building’s owner. Conan thinks the man is another thief. He realizes his mistake when the watchman pulls a cord, which rings a bell summoning the city watch.
The prefect in charge of the watch thinks Conan is the killer and wants to beat a confession out of him. Accompanying the watch on their rounds this particular night is Demetrios, chief of he Inquisitorial Council. He understands just how foolish such a course of action will be.
Instead of beating Conan, Demetrios interrogates him. Conan freely admits he’s in the building to steal, but steadfastly denies killing the owner, whose name is Kallian Publico. It’s a shame Howard didn’t write more of this sort of thing, because he seems to have had a knack for this type of dialogue. I think this story has examples of some of Howard’s crispest, best dialogue in any of his works. Other suspects are eventually brought in, including Kallian Publico’s chief clerk, Promero. When the prefect orders a particularly sadistic guard to beat Promero for information, Demetrios does nothing to stop it. In fact, Howard’s entire portrayal of Promero is one of disdain. Conan at one point calls him a weakling and a fool.
The contrast between how the police treat Conan and how they treat Promero is intriguing. Demetrios tends to believe Conan’s story that he didn’t kill Kallian Publico, while the prefect insists he did and on the basis of little evidence. Demetrios respects Conan’s courage and strength while Promero’s weakness attracts only bullying. It would be easy to dismiss the actions of the police here as entirely stereotypical of crime fiction of the day, but I think that would be a mistake. While there is some stereotyping going on in the way the police behave, I think Howard was using that to make a point about strength and weakness. Weakness attracts abuse. Demetrios respects Conan’s strength too much to challenge him. He knows he’s likely to lose.
The other thing of interest is what is implied by the sarcophagus that everything centers around. It seems Kallian Publico had acquired a bowl shaped sarcophagus from Stygia earlier in the day. It had been sent as a gift from Thoth-amon (who appeared in “The Phoenix on the Sword“), priest of Set, to Kalanthes, priest of Ibis. Ibis and Set don’t get along, so why Thoth-amon would send Kalanthes a gift is something of a mystery at first. Kallian Publico acquired the sarcophagus from the leader of the caravan transporting it. The caravan leader didn’t want to go out of his way to deliver it, and so left it with Kallian Publico to deliver. Of course, Kallian Publico had no intention of delivering the sarcophagus. Instead he opened it…and received what was intended for Kalanthes.
“The God in the Bowl” seems (to me at least) to be considered a minor Conan story. It’s certainly not one of the ones I’ve heard talked much about at gatherings of Howard fans. I think that’s a shame. Howard was stretching himself as a writer with this story. By adding the mystery/police procedural element, he was trying something new. A careful examination of Howard’s oeuvre reveals he did this frequently when he wanted to branch into a new genre. That fact that not all of his attempts were successful is less important than the fact that he tried and wasn’t afraid to experiment. We would have been poorer, and Howard’s work less moving, if he hadn’t tried at all.