“And now the world is a better place, commander. You have no understanding, Vimes, no understanding at all of the deals, stratagems and unseen expedients by which some of us make shift to see that it remains that way. Do not seek perfection. None exists.”
Since we first found him in the gutter, Samuel Vimes has been as important to the Discworld as one of the four elephants that supports it. Through him, Pratchett has taken us through the changing face of Ankh-Morpork, how it has dealt with race, power, rule of law and sexuality. The early days of the city facing a threat from a dragon are long ago. Now Ankh-Morpork has a working telegram and financial system, with its mixed species police force a paragon of harmony for the wider Disc.
Vimes himself has changed, shelving the booze and rebuilding the Watch in his image. He’s become a Commander, a Duke, a special envoy, a Blackboard Monitor. He has also, dare I say it, become Pratchett’s pet. Snuff was the first novel where I found myself not actually liking Vimes. He was pompous, self-righteous and rode roughshod over others. But unlike older novels, where we were asked to examine Vimes’s foibles and reconcile them with his better points, the reader is being told ‘how cool is Vimes?’. He’s literally superpowered at this point.
I had been concerned just how Pratchett’s writing abilities would have been affected post-Embuggerance. Making Money was clumsy, Unseen Academicals depressing but I Shall Wear Midnight was yet another fantastic Tiffany Aching novel. I was unsure whether it would be business as usual, as some Pratchett fans have argued, or whether the post 2007 Discworld novels were too sad to continue with.
With Snuff (and with Raising Steam), I feel the answer sits somewhere between the two camps. They are enjoyable, and deeply admirable given his health, but nowhere near the heights of classic Discworld. As one would expect. There have been several stylistic changes. There are footnotes abound, instead of the occasional comic gem smuggled into the bottom of the page. His back and forth dialogue has been broadened considerably. Instead of the pithy comic chat that characterised so many of his novels, we have big chunks of conversation. While it doesn’t quite overpower the novel, it does slow it down considerably.
To its credit, the plot holds things together much better than I expected, although that is not without its issues. In Snuff, Vimes has had to hand in his badge, but not for any insubordination reasons; in fact, he’s embarking on his first holiday with the ever awesome Sybil Ramkin and young Sam. Fearing he will be bored out of his mind, Vimes is delighted to uncover a smuggling ring in the lands surrounding Ramkin Hall. In order to find those responsible, he has to delve into the world of the goblins, a species too primitive for even the open-minded Discworld.
People hounded them out if they came into the city and they tended to end up downriver,working for the likes of Harry King in the bone-grinding, leather-tanning and scrap metal industries. A fair walk outside the city gates and so outside the law.
This shift away from the urban to the country house, making it The Suspicions of Mr Vimes or Pride and Extreme Prejudice, as Pratchett remarks in one of the best jokes of the book, is rather novel and something we haven’t seen before in the Discworld, all 39 novels of it. The mystery plot builds a skeleton for the story, but there isn’t really enough of it to flesh it out fully. Vimes shows up to the country, there’s been a murder, he quite quickly finds out who did it, the villain is a bit of a non-entity, there’s a chase, then another chase. Arrests are made. Fin.
There’s a complete lack of narrative tension and that’s down to Vimes. At the end of Thud! Vimes brought himself to bear over the Summoning Dark, an ancient dwarven spirit that represents the evil that lies within all of us. That’s not a bad concept in itself, as Vimes has had to fight against the devils in his nature for the entirety of the Watch series.
But what we get is a man who can now see in the dark and speak goblin because Summoning Dark. There are nods to the great struggles Vimes is fighting with but it’s a difficult one to buy. He’s the same Vimes as before, Vetinari’s terrier, but with superpowers. Any suggestion he may not get the bad guy or do something questionable is silly. There’s a reference to snooker in the novel and the plot unfolds as predictably as Ronnie O’Sullivan demolishing an underpowered opponent.
The best thing about the wizards of the Unseen University and the witches of Lancre is how Pratchett shoves their power to one side. They could, if they wished, change the very face of the Discworld but they realise that with great power Uncle Ben will teach them a lesson. So magic in the Discworld is appropriately rationed; when something mystical happens, it’s for a fantastic reason (like Tiffany burning through snow to save the Chalk’s sheep in Wintersmith, for example).
By giving Vimes powers that he readily uses, any potential tension is sucked out of the novel and it suffers as a result. My problems with this are doubled because of how Pratchett is writing. The newly verbose Discworld characters result in Vimes becoming a pompous, self-righteous windbag who just witters on about The Rule Of Law. It’s not that he’s an unlikeable character who the reader is drawn to – he’s just a bit of a tool.
These stylistic issues leak into other aspects of the book. What I love about Pratchett is how he never underestimated the reader. He challenged whoever picked up his books to think, to reconcile difficult concepts and juggle contradictory ways of thinking. Snuff does not do that. The thickness of the novel does not justify the plot it supports. Nothing is left to the imagination, there are no gaps to fill in. The most depressing part of the book was the following, which practically spells out IN BIG NEON LETTERS exactly what the reader should be paying attention to:
He crept downstairs and let himself out into the night…which was a chequerboard of black and white. He’d forgotten that outside the city, where the smogs, smokes and steams rendered the world into a thousand shades of grey, out in places like this there was black and white, and, if you were looking for a metaphor, there was one, right there.
That’s not the Pratchett I enjoy.
Elements of the novel are fun. The massive set-piece barge chase at the end of the novel is deftly done. There’s the concept of “small crimes hiding bigger ones”, where smuggling is the “respectable” face of goblin slavery, is smart but regrettably undercooked. I loved Miss Beedle, the children’s author who was one of the goblins’ most vocal champions. Beedle’s mother was raised by goblins when she was abandoned as a child and her telling Vimes of her family history delivers one of the book’s best passages.
Fortunately, although she probably didn’t think so at the time, she was strong and clever and she learned to be a good girl, learned to wear proper dresses and eat with a knife and fork and kneel down to pray her thanks for all that she was receiving, including the beatings. And she learned not to be a goblin so successfully that they allowed her to work in the garden, where she vaulted over the wall. They never broke her, and she said to me that there would always be some goblin in her.
That last sentence in particular in genuinely chilling. It reminds me in part of Karen Joy Fowler’s phenomenal We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which everyone on this planet should read.
Despite the pedestrian plot, it has a brilliant conclusion, where the world is changed in the goblins’ favour. Sybil Ramkin, delightful, warm, exquisite Sybil decides to hold a concert where the talented goblin Tears of a Mushroom can showcase her otherworldly harp skills. Similar to the extract above, this is a fantastic piece of writing from Pratchett:
In the afternoon, Lady Sybil took tea with some of her girlfriends, all old girls from the Quirm College for Young Ladies, and had a very satisfactory time talking about other people’s children while silently, drive by messages sleeting across the land with a precision and speed that no wizard would have contemplated, the world began to change its mind.
Despite the happy ending, Vetinari warns that things are never that simple, in the quote that opened this post. This is one of the rare instances where Pratchett places a bit of grit in the oyster, where you find yourself still chewing over the book some days after you closed the paperback for the last time.
Curiously, writing up my thoughts about this put me in mind of The Last Continent. I didn’t feel I disliked it as much as I did until it came to putting my thoughts onto a blank document. It is immeasurably better than Unseen Academicals but lacks the spirit of I Shall Wear Midnight. For me, Samuel Vimes’ story ended at Night Watch, where he came to terms with his past and moved onto the future. While Pratchett was rather ruthless in dumping the Witches of Lancre before the Discworld hit novel 25, he was regrettably more sentimental when it came to Ankh-Morpork’s greatest copper. Which is a shame – I was glad to see the back of him, something I never would have imagined saying when I read Feet of Clay.
NEXT WEEK! We change track and tack.Moist is back and has the railways in his sights. Can he bring disparate parts of the Disc together as the world marches towards modernity? See you next week.