Thieves' House
by Fritz Leiber

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Unknown Worlds, February 1943

collected in —
Two Sought Adventure
Swords Against Death

Ill Met in Lankhmar July 2012


One can hardly improve on, for an amusing summary or precise abstract, Fritz Leiber's own Contents-page teaser for "Thieves' House"; it's his longest such teaser among the collections of the great fantasy series of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (excepting "Adept's Gambit" which has its own annotated sub-Contents) — and longest for good reason, as we shall see:

More on jewels, gold, and skulls — nay, even skeletons entire. Concerning the Gray Mouser's and Fafhrd's third visit to that primal sink of iniquity, in Nehwon or anywhere else, located on the west side of Cheap Street midway between the Street of the Gods and the Street of the Thinkers (called by theologians Atheists' Avenue) and backed by Murder Alley — the immense guild hall of the altogether-too-well-organized Thieves of Lankhmar, skulkers of tremendous skill, cutpurses unparalleled, pickpockets nonpareil, picklocks without match, stealers extraordinary, even on occasion extraordinarily expert killers — though preferring to hire out such work to the Slayers' Brotherhood (another organization which Fafhrd and the Mouser detest). Of odd disguises and a black kitten. Of a tasty redhead named Ivlis and her maid. Of dust and death.
in Swords Against Death
and Ill Met in Lankhmar

I've long considered the pair of stories about the Thieves' Guild, the novella "Ill Met in Lankhmar" and its sequel, this novelet "Thieves' House", as a good flagstoned foundation for understanding the series, an entry into the kinds of lives of the inhabitants of Lankhmar. (If you haven't read my review of "Ill Met in Lankhmar", you may wish to read that first, but it isn't necessary. There are no plot spoilers.) While Lankhmar has its own modes and orders of daily and nightly life, of physical and economic and spiritual strife, they are not ours: recognizable to be sure, but with love and violence bound side by side, lavish and gorgeous and impoverished and dark more closely intermingled than we are accustomed to. The world of Nehwon is an exotic locale for gritty adventure (or vice-versa), with the city of Lankhmar as its crowded and intense crossroads.

Thieving is in fact one of the honored professions in Lankhmar, and indeed the Mouser and Fafhrd themselves rarely hesitate to make their living, or furnish their lifestyles, via theft as opportunity presents. In the series, we spend little time noticing folk anywhere in Nehwon who live by building or mining or planting or herding; these stories definitely are adventures of thrilling force and crafty fraud: so stealing from, infiltrating, hoodwinking, or desperately fighting the Thieves' Guild drops us right into the vivid heart of Lankhmar.

It is fascinating how consistent Fritz Leiber has been, coherently creative and various as in Goethe's equally long a-building Faust, with these fabulous characters and their world during the half-century after he and his friend Harry Otto Fischer began developing them in 1934. "Ill Met in Lankhmar" was published in 1970; though other stories were written in the interval and others intervene chronologically, its topical sequel "Thieves' House" was first published in 1943. "Ill Met in Lankhmar" is the 24th story published (ignoring partial drafts from the 1930s), and chronologically 4th; "Thieves' House" is the 5th story published, and chronologically 7th.

In a casual comparison of Leiber's final-as-collected 1973 version of "Thieves' House" with his original as printed in Unknown Worlds in February 1943, I found little difference: stylistically minor to sharpen focus, or more importantly to re-point the characters' connectivity with their doings in the enlarged series. Here's an example, the three opening paragraphs as in Unknown Worlds:

"What's the use of knowing the name of a skull? One would never have occasion to talk to it," said the fat thief, smirking. "What interests me is that it has rubies for eyes."

"Yet it is written here that its name is Ohmphal," replied the black-bearded thief, who was in authority.

"Let me see," said the red-haired wench, leaning over his shoulder. Together the three of them read the cryptic runes: ...

Thick as thieves, they are. The opening in the collected version:

"What's the use of knowing the name of a skull? One would never have occasion to talk to it," said the fat thief loudly. "What interests me is that it has rubies for eyes."

"Yet it is written here that its name is Ohmphal," replied the black-bearded thief in the quieter tones of authority.

"Let me see," said the bold, red-haired wench, leaning over his shoulder. She needed to be bold; all women were immemorially forbidden to enter Thieves' House. Together the three of them read the tiny hieroglyphs. ...

In the re-tuned version the emphases are deemed unnecessary, and the relationship between the first Guild thief and his boss is delineated more subtly. Although no names are given as the scene begins, neither the thieves nor the woman are nameless spear-carriers: all have major roles in the action to come. The extra line given to the "red-haired wench" helps us notice her immediately as well as clarifying that she is neither Guild member nor allowed in their headquarters — we will learn whether she is honest, or elsewhere, as events unfold. And hieroglyphs are more reasonable for the ancient document they're studying. The suspense and breathless danger, the locale vivid to eyes and smell and touch, and the deft characterizations are all in the original.

Although "Thieves' House" opens with the three plotters, soon enough our vengeful heroes Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are at hand, dominating the action although of course they must contend using adaptable wits and assorted weapons to shape events to their satisfaction, and their survival. There is plenty of dust and oft-surprising death, as Leiber promised.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

More about Thieves' House in
Ill Met in Lankhmar

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series

Fritz Leiber at Troynovant   

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