When someone asks me what genre Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels fall under, my usual response is ‘comic fantasy’. But the truth is, I don’t read Pratchett for the laughs anymore, although I will readily vouch for the quality of his humor. No, these days I read his novels for their humanism. This might explain why I often find myself returning to his Watch novels starting Samuel Vimes, even though there is enough and more unread material waiting on my bookshelves.
Pratchett’s style has occasionally been described as stealth philosophy, which basically means that, while he’s making you laugh, he’s also slipping in a dose of his brand of philosophy. With the Watch novels, it isn’t quite as stealthy – he would basically pause between punchlines and deliver his punches, as it were, and there’s no way you wouldn’t notice when he does that. But the laughs do keep coming. Feet of Clay, for instance, has an utterly brilliant section towards the end where the golem Dorfl has an argument with the priests of Ankh Morpork. By the time you close the book, you’re still chuckling.
With Snuff, he bothers even less with the humor, idly picking at easy targets like marriage and scat on occasion, but staying focused on the dramatic content. It’s as if Pratchett, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease, is trying to get Sam Vimes to dispense as much justice (“just ice”) as possible in Discworld before his own memory fails him, and can’t stop to engage in trifling wordplay. Note that I say this by way of description, not complaint.
The more crucial difference, though, is Vimes’ self awareness and intelligence. In the earlier books, he was a bit more of an earnest plodder with clear ideas on right and wrong, and would figure it all out eventually. In this one, you see a street-smart cop whose obstacles are not so much internal as external.
Take the case of the Summoning Dark, which had one of the more intriguing cameos in Thud. Here it makes an appearance as a mostly benevolent demon that helps Vimes. There is something anticlimactic about that. Again, like I said, Vimes seems to have matured internally into a self-aware hero, and mysteries don’t mystify him anymore, so his problems are more, shall we say, operational now.
His wife Sybil has a bigger role to play in this one, and it seems like her understanding of her husband is also much better. She has always understood what he did, and sometimes even assisted him in her own way, but one rarely saw her taking it personally. There is a scene where she urges him to seek justice for the goblins, and her vehemence is surprising, even to those who have known her long. There is also more than one mention of their sex life, something I frankly didn’t expect in a Pratchett novel.
From a philosophical standpoint, though, what has distinguished the earlier Watch novels is Pratchett’s insistence on the rule of law, even though his novels are populated with people who deserve a more vicious punishment. However, the man has lately begun to favor the more visceral forms of dispensing justice, like the encounter between Andy and Pepe in Unseen Academicals, or the late scene involving Willikins here. And while these scenes are satisfying in the obvious way, they are also a bit worrying. It feels, strangely, like a cop out.
These quibbles aside, Snuff represents yet another strong entry in the always excellent Watch series of novels. Will there be another before a Terry Pratchett goes gently into that good night? Maybe not, but Samuel Vimes will walk into the darkness knowing (and I daresay a little bemused) that he has had, not only a series of books (mostly about poo and farm animals) read aloud by him and another series written about him, but even one dedicated to him. Blackboard Monitors have never had it so good.