Steve Harrison: REH’s Private Detective

In February of 1934, Strange Detective Stories included “Fangs of Gold,” the first Steve Harrison story from Robert E. Howard. It also included “Teeth of Doom,” the second Steve Harrison story from Robert E. Howard. Except it didn’t. Not wanting two tales from the same author, writing about the same character, Harrison became Brock Rollins, Howard became Patrick Ervin and “Teeth of Doom” became “The Tomb’s Secret.” Did you get all that?

Conan, Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Sailor Steve Costigan, and Breckenridge Elkins: all are characters created by Howard who cast shadows far larger than Steve Harrison’s. Only four stories featuring the tough-as-nails private eye saw print before Howard took his own life in 1936 at the young age of 30. That tally properly would be five, but the should-have-been third, “Lord of the Dead,” went into limbo when Strange Detective Stories folded.

The non-crime pulp, Man Adventures, ran from October 1930 to July of 1931 (monthly, except for a pair of two-month issues). In November of 1931, it resurfaced as Popular Fiction, running until September 1932 (missing two months along the way). It then came out as Nickel Detective in January of 1933 (I can imagine the blurb: “Twice as much two-fisted crime as Dime Detective at half the price!”), publishing six issues in eight months. That title disappeared after the August issue and the magazine made one last, dying gasp in November of 1933 as Strange Detective Stories. Four months later, in February, it would print the two Robert E. Howard stories and fold up for good: it had no more lives remaining.

It’s a pretty good example of the high mortality rate of pulp magazines during the era. Howard was third-billed in that final issue, directly below William E. Barrett, who wrote Lilies of the Field, which was made into one of Sidney Potier’s finest films. Another novel, The Left Hand of God, became one of Humphrey Bogart’s final films.

The hard boiled school of detective fiction was well out of its explosive ‘birth’ era when Howard briefly enrolled. Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Raoul Whitfield and Frederic Nebel were either completely or almost totally finished writing for Black Mask, the seminal magazine that created the hard boiled genre. The unbelievably prolific Erle Stanley Gardner had appeared in Black Mask 81 times from 1923 through 1933. There would be only 24 of his stories in Black Mask in the next eleven years.

In fact, only two years after “Fangs of Gold,” Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw, the editor at the heart of Black Mask’s prominence, would be relieved of duties. And after an amazing decade of production, Dashiell Hammett would barely write any more fiction until his death in 1961. Raymond Chandler’s (rather elitist) literary approach to the genre had just begun when “Fangs of Gold” appeared.

Howard wasn’t some romantic writing for the sake of art. He wrote to make a living and fought to get his payments. So, he wrote in a wide range of genres, working hard to get stories published in as many markets as he could. The mystery field was one he entered relatively late and also one that he spent very little time in.

Howard’s first mystery, “Black Talons,” had appeared in the December issue of Strange Detective Stories. You know, with three stories by Howard and one from Hugh B. Cave in its four-issue lifespan, it’s too bad that pulp couldn’t hang around a bit longer! “Talons” is really a weird tale with a detective thrown in and a bit of mystery. The protagonist is Joel Brill, a scientist-adventurer, and Detective Buckley is a rather unimpressive supporting character. It may (or may not) be a mystery, but not a detective/PI story.

In a letter to August Derleth, Howard wrote, “You’re right in saying that I don’t have the feel for detectives that I do for weirds. However, I’ve been writing weirds for nine years and “Black Talons” was the first detective story that I ever wrote in my life.”

Derleth, best known to Howard fans as that Cthulhu guy, would write over seventy tales featuring Solar Pons, who was, as Vincent Starrett said, “the best substitute for Sherlock Holmes known.” He certainly knew something about mysteries.

But it is in “Fangs of Gold” that we meet Howard’s hard boiled private eye, Steve Harrison. The story takes place in swampland somewhere in the Southern United States. The detective is after Woon Shen, who killed a fellow Chinaman and stole 10,000 dollars back in River City (Harrison’s usual hometown). The swamp is inhabited by Haitian refugees who practice voodoo.

I don’t really consider this to be a hard boiled story. Harrison is a tough guy who marches confidently into the dark, but the setting and the voodoo cult completely transform the feeling. However, change the swamp to River City; voodoo to a jewelry smuggling ring and put the power grab in that context and I think you would have a typical hard boiled tale.

“Teeth of Doom” takes place in River City and fits the mold a bit better: though still not too well. Ostensibly, Harrison is trying to prevent the murder of a rich philanthropist: shades of maybe Ross MacDonald. But in fact, there’s a sinister plot afoot, with a Mongolian secret society, the Sons of Erlik, after the secrets to a formula for poison gas. The whole case has Far East ties and a world domination plot at its core. Harrison functions as more of the typical private eye in this one, though he’s actually a police officer and pretty much gives orders to everybody, including his boss. It feels more Dick Tracy than Sam Spade.

Back on January 1, Dierk Guenther wrote a post here at Two Gun Raconteur about Howard’s detective and crime stories. He made an interesting point about Howard having spent very little time in cities, which could well have impacted his ability to write hard boiled detective stories. That may well be valid. In a post I made last year over at Black Gate about Carroll John Daly and the birth of the hard boiled school, I wrote:

Regarding (Three Gun Terry) Mack and (Race) Williams, what Daly did was turn the classic pulp western into an urban story. Hammett would bring a realism to the new genre and Chandler would paint word pictures of the “errant knight.”

But Daly was taking the shoot ‘em up action of the wild-west and transplanting it to the city streets. And this was in direct contrast to the locked room and country cozy stories coming out England as part of The Golden Age. It reflected a Prohibition Era America.”

Daly, who lived like a hermit in White Plains, was nonetheless familiar with New York City and the urban life, even if he eschewed it. He could imagine the Wild West and put it in the big city. Howard, who even set his boxing tales in exotic locales, may have had trouble capturing that gritty, urban feel that was a key part to much (but not all) of the hard boiled school.

It is the two stories featuring the villain Erlik Khan, “Lord of the Dead” and “Names in the Black Book,” that exemplify where Howard might have carved out a hard boiled-ish niche. Khan is a Mongol, descendent of that Genghis fellow, who plans on uniting all of the Oriental secret societies to basically take over the world. Both tales take place in River City and are urban adventures.

In “Lord of the Dead,” Harrison wields a battle axe in the climactic battle. In “Black Book,” it’s a spiked mace. Howard can’t resist leaning towards those elements that he did so well. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine the “Black Book” rewritten as a Conan tale. And Harrison definitely has shadings of El Borak.

Sax Rohmer revived the nefarious Fu Manchu in the thirties (though we were still a few decades away from Christopher Lee’s portrayal).  They are far ranging adventure yarns, involving a sinister villain bent on world domination. Had Howard wished to continue on with Harrison, Rohmer-like adventures offered him the best chance to succeed.

Harrison himself is a hard boiled character. Howard found himself trying to shoehorn Harrison into the conventional mystery format. And he wasn’t up to it. He ended up with sort of mystery/hardboiled/detective adventure/weird tale stories.

The Harrison stories aren’t quite bad. But an honest assessment has to place them below much of Howard’s other series works. And they aren’t characteristic of the hard boiled genre, so they don’t compare well with quality authors in that field. They don’t fit in for the author or the genre. They are like debutantes at the wrong ball.

But Howard wasn’t interested in trying to work himself into a spot in the mystery field:

I’ve about decided to quit trying to write detective yarns. I sold a few of them – the first one I ever wrote, in fact – but I can’t seem to get the hang of the art. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to write them. I’d rather write adventure stuff.

And he simply packed it in: “I’ve given up trying to write detective yarns – a job I despise anyway – and am concentrating on adventure stuff.”

Perhaps if he had continued writing ‘adventure detective yarns’ – private eye stories with an El Borak feel – Steve Harrison might have found a place and Howard would have had another bankable series character. And books like Private Eyes: 101 Knights – A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984 might have had an entry on Harrison.

Dick Tracy illustration by Chester Gould

Bob Byrne is a recognized aficionado on both Sherlock Holmes and Solar Pons, featured on his website. Bob posts at least weekly on the Black Gate blog. Additionally, he is the mover and shaker behind the Discovering Robert E. Howard series of posts by various authors posted on the BG blog.