Ontological Combatants: A Review of Michael Moorcock’s The Metatemporal Detective

6 min read

by Anthony Perconti

One of the enduring qualities of the works of fantasy grandmaster Michael Moorcock, in my view, is that of a philosophical (and political) undercurrent that runs all throughout his fictions. This layering of intellectual exploration elevates his work from its pulp roots into something meatier. Something that contains an extra heft as it were. This is not to say that Moorcock is a boring writer; far from it. The man knows how to weave a ripping yarn while adding a bit more to the mix. He can convey satisfactorily entertaining stories while presenting readers with some thought-provoking philosophical, cosmological, and political ideas.

Over his long career, Moorcock has dabbled in a wide variety of popular fiction genres, including steampunk, proto-cyberpunk, literary fiction, and (perhaps what he is best known for) heroic fantasy. The Metatemporal Detective sequence is comprised of nearly a dozen stories that primarily riff on the subgenre of detective fiction. However, this being a Michael Moorcock novel, the author takes an expansive view as to how he defines this category. These stories can certainly be broadly classified as detective fiction, albeit with frequent detours into other genres and subjects that strike the writer’s fancy. This book can be viewed as a distillation of the writer’s career-long preoccupations including such topics as the philosophical and cosmological ramifications of the multiverse, wry political commentary, and his longstanding appreciation of the British pulp hero, Sexton Blake along with his arch-nemesis, Zenith the Albino.

The Metatemporal Detective is a collection of short stories centered on the long-standing cat and mouse dynamic between the world’s greatest detective, Seaton Begg and his greatest rival, the criminal mastermind, Monsieur Zenith. But as is typical in a Michael Moorcock work, things are certainly not as simple as they seem when taken at face value. Seaton Begg is a British consulting detective (on par with Sherlock Holmes, or perhaps more to the point, with Sexton Blake), who works for the Home Office Metatemporal Investigative Agency. Begg’s remit is in investigating and solving baffling crimes across the branes of the wider multiverse. Monsieur Zenith, the Albino, is a scion of the ruling family of Waldenstein. Zenith is an opium imbibing master criminal, brimming with ennui, who only feels alive when orchestrating ostentatious capers. Oh and by the way, he also has in his possession a black sword with scarlet runes set into the blade, which is somewhat sentient (and quite thirsty). Sound familiar?

Monsieur Zenith

To complicate matters, both of these brilliant rivals are related. They are both parts of the (ubiquitous) von Bek family. In Moorcock’s fiction, von Bek’s have familial branches across all parts of the world (actually, worlds), under slightly altering cognomen (Begg, LeBec, etc.). The clan’s hereditary duty is that of safeguarding The Grail. Begg, generally speaking, is on the side of Law, while Zenith is aligned with the opposing force of Chaos.

Through the use of the highly accommodating narrative device of the multiverse, Moorcock can explore a variety of subgenres related to detective fiction and well beyond those parameters. Many of the tales fall into the ‘consulting detective’ subset, as exemplified by Sherlock Holmes (and his derivation, Sexton Blake), such as “The Affair of the Seven Virgins” and “The Case of the Nazi Canary”, while “The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade” and “The Pleasure Garden of Filipe Sagittarius” is Moorcock writing in the style of the hard-boiled, Black Mask mode. He explores the uniquely French genre known as Roman policier or polar, in which Begg teams up with his French counterpart, Commissaire Lapointe of the Surete du Temps Perdu in “The Affair of Le Basin des Hivers” and “The Flaneur des Arcades de l’Opera”. Moorcock even delves into the genre of the Golden Age Western, in the vein of Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy in “The Ghost Warriors” and “The Mystery of the Texas Twister” in which the Metatemporal Investigator crosses paths with the frontier vigilante known as The Masked Buckaroo. This level of fictional exploration is a standard operating procedure for this volume; Moorcock takes chances in switching from several subgenres and the result pays off. These stories are all entertaining variations on a theme. Much like in the world of music, when the same song played in differing keys.

By setting these stories in alternate universes, Moorcock can re-mix 20th and early 21st Century world history (and technology) with gleeful abandon. Steam-powered airships, electric automobiles, and clean and efficient public trams are de rigueur in this volume.

Seaton Begg

The author also makes no qualms in lampooning world leaders from these eras as well. Avatars of the Conservative and Republican Parties, Margaret Thatcher (Lady Ratchet), Bush and Cheney (George ‘The King’ Putz and Dick Shiner), make appearances in these pages and come out the worse for wear. Moorcock also excoriates a certain infamous German Chancellor and his ilk in “The Case of the Nazi Canary” and “The Pleasure Garden of Filipe Sagittarius”. The author does not pull any punches and makes it abundantly clear in delineating where his political sympathies lie.

The tales that make up this sequence are off-putting and I believe that this is intentionally so. Moorcock instills a sense of unease and confusion in this volume, in that, the reader is left to fend for themselves as it pertains to internal continuity (or more specifically, continuities) of the stories. While working your way through The Metatemporal Detective, you are left with the sense that the laws of causation are null and void, or simply don’t apply in the grand narrative scheme. Seaton Begg and Monsieur Zenith are caught in an interlocking sequence of (non-linear) factional confrontations. “The English detective took an interest in his pipe. “My question has always been, your highness, whether you would deny me my peace of mind in achieving yours. It is a great fundamental debate. How do we achieve a satisfactory compromise?” In theory, the reader could be experiencing stories of different iterations of the same characters, locked in perpetual conflict, or in the words of Begg, fundamental debate, echoing across parallel timelines throughout the multiverse. Or then again, maybe not. Moorcock does not spoon-feed his audience; multiple theories could certainly be valid interpretations of the goings-on in the eternal struggle between Law and Chaos. The long-established character from the Jerry Cornelius novels and temporal adventuress, Una Persson, makes key appearances in several of the stories as well, increasing the sense of fractalization and non-linearity in the overall narrative. While reading The Metatemporal Detective, it is best to just go with the flow and accept the fractal and recursive nature of these stories set in a nearly infinite multiverse.

Michael Moorcock

For individuals looking to try out Michael Moorcock as a writer, I would suggest that they start elsewhere. The Metatemporal Detective is not the ideal point of entry into his works; this book is for the diehard MM crowd. Longtime fans will get many of the allusions, cameos, and name drops that signify his greater body of literature. Newcomers should heartily check out his Elric, Corum, or Bastable novels to get a good feel for his sense of style and tight plotting. Those books capture his strengths as a writer in a clear concise manner; they are in essence, Moorcock 101 level works. However, if you are a longtime reader of Moorcock’s that is reasonably versed in his mythology and are looking to delve into some of his short, trippy fiction, the tales of Seaton Begg and Monsieur Zenith certainly fit the bill. They are equal parts detective story and (yet) another iteration of his Eternal Champion metanarrative. They add another level of nuance and complexity to his already extensive oeuvre. Open up that wonderful John Picacio cover and prepare yourself to take a journey through the great multiversal tree on The Roads Between the Worlds.

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