Swords Against Death Re-Read: “Thieves’ House”

lankhmar 7Bill Ward and I  are re-reading a book from Fritz Leiber’s famous Lankhmar series, Swords Against Death. We hope you’ll pick up a copy and join us. This week we tackled the third tale in the volume, “Thieves’ House.”

Howard: I see now why I remembered this one so fondly. Consider the following ingredients: a twisting maze in a building so old that even its inhabitants don’t know all of its secrets: trap doors, secret passages, action, mayhem, a beautiful dancing girl, treasure, horror…

So far as I know, this is the first ever mention of a guild of thieves (remembering that the “earlier” story, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” was written decades after this one). A thief is referred to as being “a cutpurse of the first rank.” You combine that with the traps and treasure and the horrors and it’s pretty darned clear what a huge influence this story had to have had on original Dungeons & Dragons, not to mention all other fantasy games and all writers who grew up playing them.

lankhmar 5Bill: I noticed all that as well, and it had me wanting to roll to check for traps a few times.

Howard: Hah! And how about the horror? Leiber hits it out of the park. In lesser hands we would just have seen some talking skeletons. Instead, we only ever glimpse them, or their actions. A character might brush against one, or hear the clack of them, or see a dead man’s neck with marks upon it that are strangely claw-like. Then there are the touches like the “old thieves” being able to see Fafhrd in pitch-black, or the flight of skeletal bats, or the jewel-like glimmer of eyes floating in the darkness… it’s just fabulous.

Bill: All that also struck me as particularly impressive. The scene where Fafhrd is being discussed by the ancient dead is especially creepy (as well as somewhat funny, a hard balance to strike), as is the teasing description of the emergence of the dead at the climactic part of the story. Not for nothing is Leiber also celebrated for his more horrific weird tales, such as “The Smoke Ghost,” and I was reminded again of his skill in this story.

Howard: Great point about the humor. Leiber manages to have a comforting thread of humor even as he’s chilling you with the supernatural.

lankhmar 9Another thing I loved is that all the principal characters are clever, and all of them have their own agendas. I love the Mouser’s last desperate plan to find the skull to save Fafrhd, dressed the while as an old woman. He’s so into the role he half believes it himself, because the Mouser is, like many actors, a little egocentric. I love how Fafhrd, truly in a desperate situation, plays upon the fears of his enemies and embellishes the tale of what happened to him to buy time. And then when the Mouser creeps in, he hears Fafhrd’s story — we can infer this through the Mouser’s actions — and performs that wonderful mummery with the floating skull and high disembodied voice that almost tricks the thieves.

And how about Slevyas? What a clever and capable fellow. You can’t help but respect him. He’s much more agile than he looks and he’s an excellent commander. If he had simply been a little more open to the idea of the supernatural he might have survived.

Bill: And, in the case of F&GM, those are some great character moments as well. Fafhrd is a trained storyteller, and his barbarian poetic license really confuses some thieves that had never been on the receiving end of an epic before. And the Mouser in disguise is classic, a born actor whose most convincing flourish as a witch is producing a kitten from under his rags. These characters are fun, and you want to know even more about them every time Leiber gives us juicy bits like that.

lankhmar 3Howard: Absolutely. We get to know Ivlis only a little, but she has enough agency that she becomes more than a simple “prize to be won.” When she’s sitting at the table at the end with Fafrhd and the Mouser she has a voice of her own.

We could probably spend pages just going on about all the wonderful little touches like how Fafrhd gets lost, or how the Mouser kicks someone deserving while in disguise, or how its rumored the thieves have taken up worship of something in the cellars of Thieves’ House.

Honestly, I find it difficult to find much fault. The opening sequence might feel a little awkward because we don’t get any names and everyone has to be referred to by a string of descriptors (red-headed wench, fat thief, black-bearded thief). But as I went back again I saw Leiber was playing his game by certain rules. No one gets called by name in the prose until that name is used by a character in the text. Once they’re introduced by name, then we can get into their inner thoughts and the camera can close in on any one of them whenever Leiber wants and switch to their point of view. He’s so skilled at it that I may have to read it again just to watch for the switches.

Bill: I may read it again just to follow along with that technique. At some point I found I’d lost track of how the POVs were unfolding, and I just forgot about them and let myself get swept up in the action.

Howard: Right there with you. I’m looking forward to reading the next one, and I can just about guarantee I’ll revisit “Thieves’ House” again soon.

6 Comments on “Swords Against Death Re-Read: “Thieves’ House”

  1. I really liked this one for all the reasons you mentioned. Leiber came from an acting background. IIRC, his father, Fritz Leiber, Sr., was a character actor in a number of old B&W movies. That background comes through with the role the Mouser plays as an old woman.

  2. Well, I finally caught up. I really forgot how good the good F&GM stories are. I liked this one best so far for all the reasons above. It reminds me, more than any other classic S&S, of the early days of rpgs

  3. Hey Keith, Hey Fletcher,

    I hope you’ll forgive my late response. Bill practically had to poke me with a stick this week to get me to write my half of the new essay. I just haven’t been online much. I really appreciate the two of you dropping by.

    Keith, I completely agree that some of that acting background comes through. I seem to recall that Leiber jr. had a supporting role in at least one movie (Camille?) and that he had stage acting experience as well, so add that into being surrounded by it there’s no wonder he can bring so much life to any of these moments where the two are involved in acting.

    Fletcher, it’s been a long time since I read these, and it’s really neat seeing them from a more mature perspective. I’d never enjoyed “Bleak Shore” as much but didn’t hate it, and couldn’t have articulated why. Now I can. And it’s interesting to me that some of the things that confused me about “The Jewels in the Tower” weren’t really the things that bothered me now, but that something else bugged me. “Thieves’ House,” on the other hand, was as delightful as I’d remembered, and I could better understand why it worked.

    I’m looking forward to “The Howling Tower” next week. I remember it being fairly strong.

  4. Well. This was a definite step up from “The Jewels in the Forest”. I love how the “immediate” adventure is taken care of in a single smash-cut, and the actual story is more focused on thief politics. Though, reading this after “Ill Met in Lankhmar” does give me a weird sense of deja vu (I coulda sworn at least one of the three named thieves were killed in that story…).

    Totally agree about the skeletons (ghosts?) being kept in the dark – that was an absolutely brilliant touch of horror. The Mouser’s fortuneteller act was also tremendous fun (though I cared less for Fafhrd’s ghost story being told in the exact same way… I think directly quoting him at some parts, instead of just summarizing it, would’ve had better effect). And Ivlis gets a surprising amount of props for what looks like a bog-standard femme fatale – I could be remembering wrong, but I think the story just takes it for granted that she broke free of the Mouser’s knots by herself. I love that.

    Onto “The Bleak Shore”!

  5. Great synopsis guys!
    I came to Leiber late in the piece, so don’t suffer from the sentimentality that I think infects some fans when they assess his work. One thing that struck me about his stories was the wildly inconsistent level of quality. In fact he could possibly be the most inconsistent fantasy author I’ve read. I found that many of his tales exhibited clunky prose that was almost jarring in effect, and would snap me out of the story. It got to the point that I was almost fearful reading his stuff, as a tale would be running along smoothly, but I’d be waiting for that awkward sentence which would ruin the flow of the thing.
    There are only two Leiber tales that I’ve read which don’t suffer from this problem. The first is ‘Bazaar of the Bizarre’ which I consider almost flawless in execution, and the second is ‘Thieves House’ which is a notch below ‘Bazaar’ but is still superb. (‘The Seven Black Priests’ comes in at number 3 for me, still good but I consider ‘Thieves House’ to be superior).
    This is a cracking story, and in my opinion well deserving of the praise it receives!

    • That’s interesting, Dan. It’s not a phrase or something that usually pulls me out of Leiber, but a whole bunch of stuff, typically a boring or awkward plot. But I agree with your statement about his inconsistency. I love about a third to half of his Lankhmar stories, and the other slightly less than half I’ll probably never read again. I don’t think I have any other favorite fantasy author whose work I feel so mixed about. I mean there’s a lot of Lord Dunsany’s stuff I thought was just okay, but I didn’t actually wince a little while reading it, nor was I actively bored. And there are some Robert E. Howard stories I didn’t care for, but that’s at nowhere near the halfway mark…

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