Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Metatemporal Detective, by Michael Moorcock

New York: Prometheus Books, 2007, pp. 370.

Michael Moorcock’s recent collection, The Metatemporal Detective, contains eleven stories centering on the adventures of Sir Seaton Begg, a crisp, clever, Sherlock Holmes-like English detective with a classic stiff upper lip who travels the moonbeam roads of the multiverse solving crimes, carrying on a long-running duel with his nemesis, the enigmatic Monsieur Zenith.

As readers familiar with Moorcock might guess, there is a lot more to these stories than this simple premise suggests. Once again Moorcock is writing in his Edwardian adventure story mode, with both Begg and his antagonist homages not to Holmes, but the stories of Sexton Blake, and his sometime opponent, the original Monsieur Zenith. (The Sexton Blake tales are relatively obscure today, the books no longer even in print, but those interested can learn more about them at "Blakiana," a web site devoted to the phenomenon which Moorcock himself recommends on his acknowledgements page and which includes, among other things, Moorcock's own thoughts on the character in his article "The Odyssey of Sexton Blake.")

Moreover, this is a story deeply rooted in Moorcock's multiverse, where the primal forces of Law and Chaos struggle against one another, and the precarious balance between the two is maintained only by the Knights of the Balance, like the various incarnations of the "Eternal Champion," the most famous of whom is very much present. The black sword-wielding Zenith, as the image of the pale, crimson-eyed gentleman on the book's cover hints, is none other than Elric of Melnibone.

As one might expect given Moorcock's rejection of simplistic notions of good and evil, and his insistence that Elric is not an anti-hero, but a hero, period, Elric does not precisely take a villainous turn here. While often on the wrong side of the Law that Begg is sworn to uphold--and certainly as capable of cold-blooded acts as ever--his adventures nonetheless have him acting not out of selfish personal gain, but his familiar role as rescuer, righteous avenger and servant of the balance. Additionally, his contest with Begg is an honorable one, played by rules they both recognize.

As a consequence, the tone in these pieces is rather lighter than in most of Moorcock's Eternal Champion stories, which so often tended toward the brooding and the tragic, and they are quite effective in this mode. The individual stories in the collection are witty, intricately plotted without being confusing, and at the same time Moorcock never shies away from going over the top, the outstanding example of which is the "The Mystery of the Texas Twister," with its caricatures of well-known figures and wild climax. Additionally, even working within the Edwardian adventure mode they also manage to reflect Moorcock's trademark versatility, from the hard-boiled crime story "The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade" to the Western "The Ghost Warriors," the satirical spy caper in "Twister" to the Parisian-set police procedural of "The Affair of the Bassin Les Hivers," which helps to keep them from being repetitive, and the worlds across which Begg pursues Zenith have an interest of their own.

As is commonly the case, particularly in the Pyat Quartet, Moorcock's settings come alive, urban ones especially, and the element of alternate history, which Moorcock earlier used to good effect in the Oswald Bastable tales, is compelling because of the uniqueness of his approach. Instead of fictionalizing plausible counterfactuals, or nightmares which make history as it turned out seem like a relief for all of its horrors, his main use of it is the visualization of alternative paths that may have had more rather than less attractive outcomes--which as he demonstrates is not a barrier to interesting and at times extravagant world-building. In most of the worlds Begg visits it is not a dwindling supply of oil but electricity which powers cars, as we can only wish was the case today; and instead of squeezing aboard crowded, paranoid passenger planes, long-distance travelers enjoy the amenities of a more gracious age on airships. The neoconservatives are not only confined to the rogue state of Texas, but find their war-making schemes thwarted and their reign cut short. (Moorcock's political sympathies are not one of the book's mysteries.) Adolf Hitler, who so often triumphs in genre stories that Gavriel D. Rosenfeld recently devoted a book-length study to them, 2005's The World Hitler Never Made, is here checked long before his regime wreaks anything like the damage it did in our world. While this sometimes has Moorcock going over ground familiar from his other works, sometimes later ones which treated the subject in greater depth (as in "The Case of the Nazi Canary," which deals with some of the same history as the Pyat novel The Vengeance of Rome), the distinctiveness of this series keeps his handling of them fresh.

The collection was also put together with an eye to making it more than the sum of its parts. As with the fifteen-volume reissue of much of Moorcock's earlier writing under the Eternal Champion heading in the 1990s, Detective retroactively puts these disparate series into a more or less linear sequence, and there is some unevenness. A few are only tenuously connected to the Begg-Zenith duel, particularly the oldest pieces, 1966’s "Sylvia Blade" and "The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius" (one reason why in some editions the stories have been revised retroactively to make them a closer fit). The same goes for "Sir Milk-and-Blood," which is basically a piece of supernatural horror in which Bad People get their comeuppance from something far scarier than themselves. Nonetheless the first story in the set, "The Affair of the Seven Virgins," is a fitting start to the saga, which develops through most of the stories that follow, particularly the last two pieces, "Les Hivers" and "The Flaneur des Arcades de l'Opera." While "Les Hivers" vaults over quite a bit of narrative territory I would have preferred to see more thoroughly fleshed out here, it succeeds in advancing the relationship between Begg and Zenith, and in deepening the world they both inhabit. "Flaneur," which here appears for the very first time, is ambitious and grandly imagined, bringing together other threads from the Elric and Von Bek sequences, and makes for a very satisfying close to the volume.

Moorcock's polished, lucid storytelling makes these pieces accessible and enjoyable for newcomers, but as the elaborate background to them suggests, they will not get quite all of the layers and nuances to them. It is mainly longtime readers of the author's works who will appreciate the dizzying interconnections, the crossovers and the in-jokes that form a significant part of this series' full entertainment value, here even more so than in most of Moorcock's fiction. (The Von Bek family mythos Moorcock established in The War Hound and the World's Pain is not much less important than Elric's own sprawling saga to the stories in Detective, which is as good an argument as any for a comprehensive, thorough and up-to-date encyclopedia of Michael Moorcock's writing.) Old fans will likely find themselves going back to earlier works, while new readers may find their curiosity sufficiently piqued to look up his earlier books-and lose themselves on the moonbeam roads of the multiverse.

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