Monday, October 17, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett.  If you’re familiar with his thirty-eight (!) previous Discworld novels, plus other novels, TV adaptations, illustrated guides, cookbooks and other assorted creative endeavors then you already know all about him, and are probably familiar with not only his extensive body of work but also some of his recent advocacy of assisted suicide following his diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  If you’re not familiar with him then this review is probably not the place to start.  Get thee to a bookstore and come back later.

Ready?  Ok then.  If you’re like me you might be a little hesitant about picking this one up because his last two adult Discworld books were, shall we say, a little uneven.  Personally I felt like Making Money had the makings of two good books but ended up getting blended into one sort of messy one, and although Unseen Academicals was decent enough it wasn’t quite up to the standard that I’ve come to expect from Pratchett.  And I was not really keen on the idea that I’d not like it very much and then have to come here and say so; therefore I’m very happy indeed to report that this is the best Discworld book in years, although it’s certainly come a long way from its origins.

Sam Vimes is a fan favorite and probably the closest thing to an autobiographical character that exists in Pratchett’s work, being a boy from extremely humble beginnings ending up in a position of authority and wealth.  He doesn’t necessarily feel like he deserves any of that, but at the same time he knows better than anyone that the world isn’t fair, and so as long as he doesn’t try and stop the wheel of fortune he doesn’t really feel like he needs to give it all away.  This is the eighth book starring him, and as this one begins he’s headed out with his wife and son (now six, so it’s been about four years since we’ve last seem them) on vacation to their country estate.  He does get to bring Willikins, perhaps the standout character of this particular book and characterized to a somewhat surprising degree in a different manner than he’s been seen before (although it fits with his continuing arc of increasing badassitude – still, it’s a pretty big change.)

Did I mention that Lord Vetinari, Vimes’ boss and dictator of the city of Ankh-Morpork, suggested to Sibyl Vimes that it might be an ideal time to head out on vacation?  No?  Well, if you’ve read any of the previous City Watch books, you know that Vetinari’s suggestion means it’s on.  Not that Vimes knows it yet.

The last couple of Discworld books suffered from a case of too much Vetinari.  He’s best used sitting in his office being creepily omniscient and solving problems in his own unique way, which consists either of 1) throwing someone into a situation where the problem gets solved without Vetinari having to do anything personally; or 2) throwing someone into a situation where the problem gets thrown into sharp relief and causes everyone to beg Vetinari to do what he already wanted to do anyway.  After all, Vetinari knows that the secret to being a successful dictator is not to throw his weight around too much or at least not to do it pre-emptively.  And, of course, one of his favorite persons to use as a problem solver is Sam Vimes.  Vetinari is great here in his scenes which bookend the action, and seems like himself again, especially when marking a man for death or complaining about the crossword puzzle editor.  This is the Vetinari we have come to know and . . . er, fear, actually, I guess.

In this book you know right off the bat that Vetinari wants to have something done about the goblin problem – wait, you didn’t know there was a goblin problem on the Discworld?  All the other books which mentioned vampires, werewolves, dwarfs, trolls, gnolls, Igors, demons, Hivers, orcs, gargoyles, pictsies, gnomes, elves, golems, dragons, banshees, zombies, dryads, anthropomorphic holidays, the Grim Reaper and the boogeyman didn’t prepare you for the goblin problem?  Well, they’ve been here all this time and everyone hates them, apparently.  For that matter they hate themselves, since their religion says that they did something wrong long ago and deserve all the bad stuff that happens to them.  Maybe that’s why they are such unfortunate wretches.  Nonetheless, if you want justice everyone knows you can ask Sam Vimes, since although he'll enforce unpopular or unfair laws he'll at least enforce them against everyone.  No privilege, i.e. private law, allowed in Vimes' world.  (That could even be the motto of the Watch if it weren't already "Make My Day, Punk".)

And at this point you’re probably thinking, wait, haven’t we seen this one before, where Vimes manages to save the day and improve the lot of some ethnic group or species, like the golems in Feet of Clay or the Klatchians in Jingo, or everyone besides the fascist werewolves in The Fifth Elephant or putting an end to the dwarf/troll war in Thud!?  And if you are thinking this then you are right.  Snuff doesn’t tread any particular new ground, but although it may only tread in familiar places they're at least of good quality and entertaining enough.

Anyway, Vimes doesn’t think much of vacation but he tries to make the best of it, becoming somewhat cheered up when he discovers traces of low-grade criminality all around in the allegedly bucolic surroundings.  And he only becomes happier when people start trying to tell him there’s nothing for him to do there.  If the guilty flee when no man pursues, Vimes’ line of thought is that someone doing a runner must be guilty of something.  And since everyone knows that Vimes doesn’t take vacations (which in this case he did) they assume that he must be there to dig up their skeletons (which he isn’t) and that they are in a lot of trouble (which they are).  Mixed in with Vimes’ adventures are a couple of brief scenes back at the Watch House in Ankh-Morpork, where the officers who stayed at home naturally come across elements of a crime that intersects with what Vimes is doing.  Surprisingly, the officer who gets the most page time is Wee Mad Arthur, who has apparently come back to work since finding out about his heritage in I Shall Wear Midnight and has a few new skills these days.

Worth a mention at this point is that although Snuff is very entertaining, it isn’t all that funny, at least not laugh-out-loud funny.  There are some very nice comedic setpieces here and there, including a pretty amusing Die Hard reference (and a surprisingly explicit view of the sexual fantasies of a dwarf), but on the whole this book continues a trend that I’ve noticed in many of Pratchett’s later works to be a lot more true to life in unpleasant ways.  Not that bad things haven’t always happened in Discworld, mind you, but in real life you’re not likely to be killed by a dragon or a pack of werewolves unless you live in a really bad neighborhood.  However, groups of undesirables living (and, occasionally, dying) at the sufferance of their neighbors?  Slavery and drug trafficking?  Domestic abuse?  All pretty plausible.

The mystery at the heart of Snuff isn’t all that mysterious, as it becomes quickly apparent what’s going on and who is responsible for it.  I was a little surprised, in fact, that there wasn’t more to it; in previous adventures Vimes has stopped coups and wars, toppled countries and shaken the foundation of religions.  In this case he’s up against a bunch of stuck-up provincials and a tawdry criminal arrangement that’s only in it for the money.  But in that sense he’s in his element, because he figures if he’s expected to come down hard on a petty thief then he’ll come down like an entire forest on a man of privilege who decides to steal.  Also somewhat surprisingly the actual ringleader of the plot is referenced but never actually seen, and even the stock character of the psychopathic hired enforcer doesn’t really have that much of a role (however, he’s appropriately villainous).  Pratchett basically just skims over the generalities of the criminal plot here, the reader is left to infer most of the details and a surprising amount of the responsibility on their own.  As it happens Vimes can take care of most of these jokers pretty easily, even when there’s an angry mob with their own lawyer; the really serious conflicts come from nature and from inside himself.

Vimes has always been fighting against his impulses to an extent, and that’s on full display here.  The title of the book has at least three meanings that I can see; Vimes of course is a snuff user and tobacco is otherwise significant to the plot, and naturally there’s a murder in here somewhere.  But there’s also Vimes’ lingering worries that he’s not doing things to an adequate standard.  In his last appearance Vimes was possessed or at least inhabited by a spirit of vengeance, and as it happens it may be mostly gone but it hasn’t truly gone away, and it offers to help him out a couple of times here.  Vimes is torn by this; it may provide him with quicker convictions but is it perjury to rely on the testimony of a demon?  Is it really even real or just the reflection of his own darker nature?  Vimes has always been worried that he’s actually a bad person, and he manages to channel that fear into just arresting people and not giving them the fates they deserve.  Nonetheless, as he gets older he’s finding it harder and harder to restrain himself, and the demonic possession thing doesn’t help.  Not to mention that he’s finally starting to show his age and can’t always rely on winning the hand-to-hand – or rather, brass-knuckle to kneecap or groin – fights that he inevitably winds up in with criminals who are, after all, only getting younger and younger.

Much of this theme – what separates a man like Sam Vimes from a certain type of criminal – was previously explored in Night Watch, which very well may be Pratchett’s single best work.  And I have to say that Snuff isn’t as good as that, and may give the reader a sense of déjà vu.  But since the references are being made to some pretty great books I don’t mind going back over it again.  Sir Terry’s still got it, and I hope he’s got quite a few more like this in him.

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