Fri
Nov 8 2013 1:00pm

The Elric Reread: An Interlude with M. Zenith

Michael Moorcock the Metatemporal DetectiveAmongst Elric’s varied antecedents, you will find Fritz Leiber, Mervyn Peake, and various world mythologies. You might not expect to find in that list the stories of a famous British private detective, whose adventures have entertained many since first appearing in the late nineteenth century, and whose rogues’ gallery includes a master criminal from whom Elric borrows more than a few characteristics.

I’m talking about Sexton Blake, of course, and his enemy Zenith the Albino. Who did you think I meant?

Actually, I’m going to guess that the readership here at Tor is more likely to be familiar with Sexton Blake than your average fan-on-the-street. Nevertheless, Blake, who in 2003 was nicknamed “the poor man’s Sherlock Holmes” by Prof. Jeffrey Richards, is by far the less famous fictional detective in the US, despite having appeared in the UK in a variety of publications, radio serials, and films from 1892 to 1978. The editorial staff of one of those publications, “The Sexton Blake Library,” was joined in the late fifties by a young writer fresh off a stint at “Tarzan Adventures” by the name of Michael Moorcock.

In the last couple of decades, an avatar of Sexton Blake has appeared in Moorcock’s fiction as Sir Seaton (or, depending on the revision, occasionally Sexton) Begg, under the conceit that “Sexton Blake” is the name under which Sir Seaton’s adventures were chronicled for general consumption in the penny-dreadfuls and the pulps. More than simply a private detective or an investigator for the Home Office, Sir Seaton is the multiverse’s premiere metatemporal investigator and a member of the League of Temporal Adventurers, as well as a member of the ubiquitous von Bek family—that enormous, convoluted, multiverse-spanning family charged from the events in The War Hound and the World’s Pain with protecting the Holy Grail.

As for Zenith: as early as 1963, Moorcock wrote:

One of Blake’s most memorable opponents was a character named M. Zenith, or Zenith the Albino, a Byronic hero-villain who aroused more sympathy in the reader than the intrepid detective. Anyway, the Byronic h-v had always appealed; I liked the idea of an albino, which suited my purpose, and so Elric was born—an albino.

The original Zenith, created by Sexton Blake author Anthony Skene, first appeared in the Sexton Blake story “A Duel to the Death” in 1919, and met his (apparent?) end in the 1941 story “The Affair of the Bronze Basilisk.” In between, he did battle with Blake in a huge number of stories, and even got his own novel, Monsieur Zenith the Albino, reissued a few years back in a handsome edition by Savoy Books, with a foreword by Michael Moorcock.

The dapper and dangerous Zenith—white of skin and crimson of eye—is a world-class magnificent bastard: a ruthless criminal with his own strict moral code, often found in perfect evening dress and never without his Browning automatic, his swordstick, and his opium cigarettes—in particular one which, “if all else failed and he saw that he was doomed to imprisonment, there was always that cigarette which he might smoke and thus obtain release.” The inimitable Jess Nevins has compiled much more information on Zenith, a quick look through which will give you a good idea of how much of Zenith’s literary DNA lives on in Elric.

So it was only fitting that eventually Moorcock would return to his roots, with 1994’s “The Affair of the Seven Virgins,” in which Sir Seaton Begg is recruited by M. Zenith to thwart a tinpot dictator who has taken over Zenith’s native country and who is blackmailing the king in exile. What transpires is more than a simple double-cross; Begg soon discovers that Zenith is more than just an exiled nobleman: he is “an Angel of Destruction—a creature of almost limitless power who might, centuries before. have been human, but had lived too long in the wilder reaches of the multiverse.” And he wields a sword of black metal, adorned with mysterious red runes, which takes more than just the life from its victims.

“The Affair of the Seven Virgins” first appeared in The Time Centre Times, was later included in the Second Ether book Fabulous Harbours, and finally appeared as the first story in 2007’s The Metatemporal Detective, which collects an array of Sir Seaton Begg stories. There are a few other tales of the extended von Bek clan, like “The Girl Who Killed Sylvia Blade” and “The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius,” but the majority of the stories revolve around the eternal dance between Sir Seaton and M. Zenith. Strictly speaking, The Metatemporal Detective is a distaff branch of the Elric saga, but it’s worth knowing, both in context of the Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse comic and the Moonbeam Roads trilogy, both of which lie ahead in this re-read.

In Moorcock’s hands, Zenith (or Zodiac, as he is sometimes known) is at once recognizably Skene’s character and a Moorcockian hero-villain. He has all of Elric’s dry irony and ruthlessness, but scarcely any of his self-pity. If anything, he has more in common with the Elric of The Revenge of the Rose with his “insistent relish of life”—which isn’t surprising, given that Revenge made its debut in 1991, just three years before “The Affair of the Seven Virgins.” And as noted earlier, he also carries a black sword of his own. Sometimes it’s a swordstick; in “The Ghost Warriors,” it’s a great black spear, and in “Sir Milk-and-Blood” it appears in the form most familiar to the Elric fan—an enormous black broadsword, albeit one that its wielder carries in an electric guitar case.

It’s tempting, though likely to lead to some mild headaches, to try and comprehend all of the Metatemporal Detective stories as occurring within a completely coherent continuity. One story takes place in 1931, while another involves a body from 1820 making an unexpected appearance in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century. Perhaps we’re seeing multiple versions of Sir Seaton and Zenith as they refract throughout the multiverse.

Other variations on twentieth-century notables make appearances as well. Margaret Thatcher appears as “Lady Ratchet” in “Crimson Eyes”; “The Mystery of the Texas Twister” involves a couple of wealthy Texan miscreants named George Putz and Dick Shiner, who are involved in a scheme to build an “infernally filthy thing” known as an internal combustion engine. (No one ever said Moorcock’s satire was terribly subtle.) “The Case of the Nazi Canary” takes as its origin the death of Hitler’s niece Geil Raubal, and in “The Flaneur des Arcades de l’Opera,” Sir Seaton and Zenith must stop a Nazi invasion of Paris.

It’s in the concluding pages of “Flaneur” that Moorcock decides to make the connection between Zenith and Elric absolutely explicit:

“… I suppose, my friends, I will let you in on a secret I have kept for a rather long time. While I have in the course of the past two thousand years sired children and indeed founded a dynasty which is familiar to anyone who knows the history of the province of Wäldenstein and her capital Mirenburg, I am not truly of this world or indeed this universe. It is fair to say that I have, in the way some of you will know, been dreaming myself. I have another body, as solid as this one, which, as I speak lays on a ’dream couch’ in a city more ancient than the world it inhabits.” He paused in sympathy as he observed their expressions.

“The civilisation to which I belong is neither truly human nor of this universe. Its rulers are men and women capable of manipulating the forces of nature and, if you like, super-nature to serve their own ends. People sometimes call them sorcerers. They learn all manner of arcane wisdom by making use of their dream couches, sleeping sometimes for thousands of years while experiencing other lives. Upon waking, they forget most of the dreams save for the skills they employ to rule their world. I am one of those sorcerous aristocrats. The island where I dwell is called, as far as I can pronounce it in your language, Melniboné.”

Where, then, does this fit into Elric’s saga? Are Zenith and Elric always one and the same, or only sometimes? The reader is left to decide. (You might also wonder now about these dream couches, and why you’ve never heard of them before. That’s an interesting Moorcockian retcon that we’ll get to in more detail when we reach the comic Elric: The Making of a Sorcerer.)

The stories of the Metatemporal Detective are, it must be said, pure pastiche. But Moorcock knows his tropes of noir, detective adventure fiction, and westerns thoroughly and executes them exceptionally well. Metatemporal shenanigans aside, the pleasures of these stories might be considered old-fashioned by today’s standards, but there’s still great satisfaction in the restoration of order that concludes each story, just like any good detective adventure.

 

Next up at the end of this month: a discussion of a selection of Elric short stories, including the novella “Elric at the End of Time.” After that, we switch media and dive into the world of Moorcock’s comic books.

Publication Notes

  • The Metatemporal Detective, US Hardcover, 2007. Includes the following Seaton Begg-M. Zenith stories, which had the following original publication venues and dates:
    • “The Affair of the Seven Virgins,” The Time Centre Times v3. #2, 1994.
    • “Crimson Eyes,” New Statesman & Society, 1994.
    • “The Ghost Warriors,” Tales From the Texas Woods, 1997.
    • “The Case of the Nazi Canary,” McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, 2003.
    • “Sir Milk-And-Blood,” Pawn of Chaos, 1996.
    • “The Mystery of the Texas Twister,” Argosy #1, 2006.
    • “London Flesh,” London: City of Disappearances, 2006.
    • “The Affair of Bassin Les Hivers,” Tales of the Shadowmen 3: Danse Macabre, 2006
    • “The Flaneur des Arcades de l’Opera,” first published in this volume.

For more on Blake and Zenith:


Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX, and with this, is surfacing briefly from the first week of NaNoWriMo. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

2 comments
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
1. hoopmanjh
Fascinating stuff! I remember reading about Sexton Blake and Zenith in some of Moorcock's old introductions, etc., but I was never quite 100% certain if he was talking about an actual character or if it was some kind of weird meta-narrative he had dreamed up himself.
alastair chadwin
2. a-j
It is odd how Sexton Blake has almost entirely disappeared from knowledge despite him being one of the UK's most successful characters. I believe that copyright problems have led to the stories remaining out of print for many years. The Wordsworth Press has a small collection, but it doesn't seem to include a Zenith story.

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