This short story depicts Conan as a wild youth encountering civilization. It was submitted to Weird Tales at the same time as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the earliest depiction of Conan as a king. Thus Robert E. Howard sketched out the whole arc of the character’s life, save its ending, from the first. It was rejected by WT editor Farnsworth Wright and rediscovered and published by L. Sprague de Camp in 1951-2, who placed it after “The Tower of the Elephant” – which we’ll be reviewing next – when arranging the stories chronologically.
It opens at midnight in a candlelit building somewhere in the country of Nemedia. “It was a fantastic establishment, the great museum and antique house which men called Kallian Publico’s Temple, with its rarities from all over the world”: mainly idols, weapons, and shields, and it’s not clear to what extent this is a pre-Classical place of worship vs. a rich art collector’s house. We’re going to find these stories full of anachronisms, and while the socio-technological ones are the basic conceit to accept, a Latin name like “Publico” particularly bothers me. Naming people after Latin words we still use in English undermines that “lost civilization” conceit.
But no matter! That guy’s dead anyway, and it’s up to the watchman who finds him to discern whodunit. He finds a suspect right away: teenage Conan, who claims he just climbed in the window to rob the place, arriving too soon to be the killer. He’s a bit clueless in general, not realizing that Arus the watchman is a watchman even when he rings a bell to summon six pre-modern cops to arrest Conan. The Chief Inquisitor of the city inquisits him to determine if he’s the killer.
If one’s eyes are keen to Dungeons & Dragons tropes, this bit will amuse:
How did you enter the Temple?’
‘I hid in the shadows of the warehouse which stands behind this building,’ Conan answered grudgingly. ‘When this dog —’ jerking a thumb at Arus—’passed by and rounded the corner, I ran quickly to the wall and scaled it—’
‘A lie!’ broke in Arus. ‘No man could climb that straight wall!’
‘Did you ever see a Cimmerian scale a sheer cliff?’ asked Demetrio impatiently. ‘I am conducting this investigation. ‘
(In the earliest editions of Dungeons & Dragons, every Thief has an 85% chance to climb a sheer wall or cliff at Level 1.)
The cops hold the sword-armed Conan in a standoff and come around to investigate Publico’s corpse, finding that his neck was crushed by a cable thicker than a man’s arm, which is not found on Conan or otherwise. They question the dead man’s clerk and enslaved charioteer. The former reveals under threat of torture that Publico came here clandestinely from a villa to look at a stolen treasure. By double-crossing a caravan master, he came into more than temporary possession of “‘A sort of sarcophagus, such as is found in ancient Stygian tombs, but this one was round, like a covered metal bowl. Its composition was something like copper, but much harder, and it was carved with hieroglyphics.” Publico believed that he’d managed to steal the box for the diadem of an ancient giant-king, “which myths say was set with the strange jewels known only to that ancient race, a single one of which is worth more than all the jewels of the modern world.”
They find the sarcophagus or bowl empty, but it’s unclear it if arrived that way. It’s surmised that “When Kallian had the Bowl open, the murderer sprang on him—or he might have killed Kallian and opened the Bowl himself.”
Back to Conan. To not incriminate himself by silence, he confesses that a civilized man gave him a diagram of the temple and suggested he use his Thief skills to steal a diamond goblet from it. Meanwhile all clues are starting to point toward Publico having been killed by a serpent sent in the bowl as a “gift” from Thoth-Amon, archenemy of the priest it was intended for before Publico stole it. The prefect of police, who the narrator tells us is a materialist, acts like an idiot and does nothing about the supernatural snake on the loose, even bringing in Aztrias, Conan’s contact, who betrays him. Conan kills him along with the inquisitor, then the remaining forces of civilization are routed as the title character strikes: a constrictor snake with a beautiful, god-like human head. Conan kills that too as he makes his escape from the city and what it represents. But unlike killing a man, it seems to give him PTSD: “The thought of Set was like a nightmare, and the children of Set who once ruled the earth and who now sleep in their nighted caverns far below the black pyramids.”
I find this a pretty average example of the sort of thing Howard was going for with the Conan tales: genre fiction (unusually in this case a detective story) with brutal action in a context of an eerie sense of supernatural Deep Time.