I fought the law – Guards! Guards!

Guards-Guards-coverI can play on their horrible little minds like a xylophone. It’s amazing, the sheer power of mundanity. Who’d have thought that weakness could be a greater force than strength? But you have to know how to direct it. And I do.

The Watch has finally arrived and all is well. Books featuring this hapless band of law enforcers, led by the mighty Sam Vimes, are seen as among Pratchett’s best. Our first encounter with them is a flawed novel but a fascinating one. While Pyramids is the better novel, this is the more interesting book.

We are back in that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Ankh-Morpork. Yet again, after Dios in Pyramids, we learn that the most dangerous person in the Discworld is whoever is second in command. Lupine Wonse, deputy to The Patrician who runs the city, is using his alter-ego of the Supreme Grand Master of the Unique and Supreme Lodge of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night to try and bring a dragon to the city, a threat that will allow him to install his own puppet king. Standing between him and his desires is the Night’s Watch, the most despised group of men in the entire city.

Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s collaborator and long-time friend, has written of how the Discworld creator is not as jolly as his gentle voice and floppy-hatted demeanour have suggested. “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing,” he says. “It’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld.” Guards! Guards! is a furious novel. It’s angry at how easily a population can accept tyranny. Forgive the long quote but the following lines are the core of the novel for me:

‘Down there,’ he said, ‘are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsome of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.’

This quote is from Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of the city. With his basic black garb and supervillain intelligence, to me he’s Steve Jobs playing Lex Luthor. Like Pyramids, the complexity of Guards! Guards! is that the Patrician is the best ruler for Ankh-Morpork, regardless of his scruples (or lack thereof). He’s ruthless, cynical, power hungry but fiercely intelligent, pragmatic and someone who can distill the chaos and lunacy of Ankh-Morpork into something that could be a workable city. Like Pyramids’ Dios, he’s another villain who doesn’t think he is the bad guy.

The Morporkians’ (Ankhors?) apathy towards a dragon taking control of their city is ruthlessly underlined in the darkly hilarious scene where the heads of the city’s guild are told how human sacrifice is mandatory but each of them waits for the other to speak up and object. Even the dragon realises that there was practically nothing the dragon could do to people that they had not, sooner or later, tried on one another, often with enthusiasm. Eek.

On the other side is Sam Vimes, the only man capable of cleaning up this one horse town. Pratchett goes ballistic on the references – best of all is Fabricati Diem, Pvnc, the Night’s Watch motto and Dirty Harry’s Make My Day, Punk in Latin – and it’s his excitable embrace of tropes that pulls you in. So Vimes starts the novel drunk in the gutter, the tough cop with a heart of gold. You know he will come good in the end so every single cliche, like cops who play by their own rules, the naif who has to do everything by the book (the wonderful Carrot), or the maverick facing down the angry populace armed with a pump action dragon makes you warm to the book in a way you haven’t with its predecessors.

Pratchett’s use of cliche and tropes is very clever as it hides another well worn story in plain sight. The reader is so busy giggling at Casablanca references and the like that they fail to notice that Carrot has been hidden as the one true heir of Ankh-Morpork throughout the novel, even though HE’S AN ADOPTED BLOODY SON AND PARAGON OF SODDING VIRTUE TRAVELLING TO A CITY TO SEEK HIS FORTUNE. At least I did anyway.

But there are flaws. Vimes’ journey from drunken wretch to hero is glossed over somewhat. He suddenly ditches the bottle and decides to serve the public trust, protect the innocent and uphold the law. He’s a wonderful character – anyone who comes up with the line If there was anything that depressed him more than his own cynicism, it was quite often it still wasn’t as cynical as real life and who is constantly disappointed with himself will strike a chord with any reader – but the novel is erratic in his plotting. Vimes cleaning up his act happens much too quickly, but the book grinds to a halt about two thirds of the way in and infuriatingly spins its wheels before the plot kicks back in for its conclusion.

Ankh-Morpork breathes here, at least as much as a shitheap city where the river is technically full of solids, rather than liquids, can do. Like any great crime novel, which Guards! Guards! ultimately is, the city is as much a character as its dramatis personae. Like LA in Ellroy or Chandler or Edinburgh in Rankin, Ankh-Morpork is a tangible place and feels like the London analogy that Pratchett will ultimately turn it into. There’s a lovely Monty Python vibe to the great unwashed of the city in the scenes where the hapless Watch confront them.

This is three for three now. Since Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett has been writing with a real confidence and ambition. Guards! Guards!, with its substantive anger, is a considerable step forward from the gentle whimsy of The Colour of Magic or The Light Fantastic. I probably haven’t written about Vimes as much as he deserves but thankfully I will have ample opportunity exploring future novels. He’s no Rincewind, but funnily enough, the cowardly wizard is back in the next novel I’ll look at. Yay?

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2 Comments

  1. Guards! Guards! is the book I give first-time Pratchett readers to try to persuade of them of his greatness. It’s early enough not to require any knowledge, but far enough on that the writing and characterisation really sparkles. I agree with your point about Pratchett’s anger in this book too at the readiness of people to go along with terrible things.

    I have to say that I mourned the loss of Carrot’s guileless innocence in the later Watch books. I love what Pratchett did with Carrot, in turning him into a truly good man (with all the disconcerting outcomes that go along with that, if you think about what that *really* means) rather than a clueless, good-hearted naif as he is here, and I can see how much more interesting and useful that makes him to Pratchett as a character. But I loved the Carrot who arrested a dragon and stops along at Mrs Palm’s without any idea what that means too.

    I realised on a second or third reading that the first half of Guards! Guards! is also a tip of the hat to Jaws, particularly Chief Brody’s struggle to get Amity to accept the lurking danger – the suggestion that the footprints are from a “wading bird”, the insistence that the parade goes ahead despite the possibility that the dragon hasn’t been killed.

    At the end, like Vimes, the reader has a sort of vertiginous moment of wondering whether Vetinari is really correct about the true nature of people… and then Pratchett gives us that glorious, heartwarming release of the Watch’s request to the Patrician as reward for saving the city (a kettle and a dartboard), and Vimes laughing “for the world and the saving of souls”.

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