Fiction Reviews

The Metatemporal Detective

(2007) Michael Moorcock, Pyr, £xxxx, hrdbk, 327 pp, ISBN 978-1-591-02596-2


The Metatemporal Detective is a collection of short stories concerning the ever-so English detective Sir Seaton Begg and his companion pathologist, Welshman, Dr 'Taffy' Sinclair and set largely early in the 20th century but also through to 'modern' times. I say set largely in the early 20th century but it is not a 20th century as we know it. The Metatemporal detectives actually work for part of the British Government across dimensions and parallel Earths. If you like this is an adventurous Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson operating in fantasy Britains (and Europe and the US) that never were. In these parallel Earths more often than not cars are electric and air travel is by airship. Having said that these stories are not really inspired by Holmes and Watson but, as the author Michael Moorcock is quick to point out in the introduction, by the Sexton Blake's adventures of the 1920s (which of course were likely inspired by Holmes and Watson but Blake was (for the time) a more modern protagonist relying more on action and less on deduction than Holmes). Sexton Blake in his day was something of a publishing phenomenon and created by Anthony Skene (real name G. N. Phillips). While Moorcock was inspired reading old Sexton stories from the 1920s this character had actually been around longer and was first published in 1893. To date there are over 4,000 Sexton Blake stories!

Meanwhile back to The Metatemporal Detective The 11 Metatemporal short stories Moorcock gives us were written between 1966 and 2007 with one appearing for the first time in this, first ever, collected volume of Sir Seaton Begg adventures. So this book has quite a fiction pedigree in not only paying tribute to an early 20th century icon but in being a Moorcock collection that his fans will simply find intoxicating.

Assuming as you are visiting the Concat' website you are an SF reader, if your reading diet extends to short detective stories such as Sherlock Holmes and indeed Sexton Blake, then you are likely to enjoy the fantastical adventures of Sir Seaton Begg and Dr 'Taffy' Sinclair. Further, as previously alluded, if you are a Moorcock fan then you are bound to findThe Metatemporal Detective simply wonderful. The former is because for genre readers there is this edge of the fantastical in that Begg's adventures take place in a number of parallel Earths that are similar but different to our own. In many of these the US did not develop as it did on our Earth but its States remained more fractured. The internal combustion engine was a non-starter but the electric car rules the roads. As for air travel, forget planes but enjoy the more sedate, huge airships. Yet throughout these worlds Europe is European and Britishness Britishness even though World War II had a number of variants. Indeed Adolf Hitler turns up a couple of times including as one of Begg's clients!

Having said this SF/fantasy readers new to Moorcock need to realise that much of his writing is in the form of literary cartoons. This is not to say that the writing is inferior -- far from it -- but that the characters are more caricatures and the plots very simple. These are simply a vehicle for more engrossing imagery and literary jokes not to mention the unspoken implications. If you do not twig this then you may disengage from the ride Moorcock is providing with these tales. The idea is to enjoy the caricatures and see if you can detect any nuances that are suggestive of something deeper; for example in the relationships portrayed. Do not worry too much about each individual story but do note the worlds in which they take place, the overall themes and check out the names of some of those encountered.

For the latter, the Moorcock fans, then boy you are in for a real treat. The thing is a number of Moorcock tropes (the multiverse being the obvious one) and characters turn up or are alluded to albeit as another character. The obvious one is the couple of direct mentions of Jerry Cornelius as well as slightly disguised ones: slightly altered named people that were also clearly Jerry. Here as one of these did I detect Miss Brunner? But the main Moorcock character to crop up is Elric. Now Sexton Blake did have as one of his super foes Zenith the Albino and Zenith features in many of these Begg stories but with a difference. The metatemporal Zenith has a sword with runes on the blade and which absorbs souls: shades of Elric the albino and his sword that drank souls. Indeed at one point Elric is clearly mentioned as a distant ancestor to Zenith.

So Moorcock fans will be delighted, but those into literary figures and cultural and broadly genre related icons will also get enjoyment from finding familiar landmarks and places. For example Charles Peace gets a mention, but I will not mention any others as spotting these is a joy that should be reserved for the reader and not spoiled by the reviewer.. (Anyway, bet I missed loads.)

Michael Moorcock has been writing for decades and has made powerful contributions to both SF and fantasy. What with the human time span being what it is, it is a sad but realistic to recognise that there is less of his writing ahead of him than behind. So with the time remaining I for one am delighted that he is having fun coming up with some of his current offerings including the Metatemporal Detective. Undoubtedly many others are too.

Jonathan Cowie

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