Terry Pratchett, Snuff

I approve of how new Terry Pratchett books are generally published around my birthday. I reviewed the new Discworld book (the 39th) in last weekend’s Indian Express. In a day or two I’ll be posting a more scattered piece on the book, focusing a little more on a few specific areas. I suspect that one will be of more interest to people who have read the book.

This is a version of the Indian Express piece. If you’re really, really strict about spoilers you might want to avoid this one.

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The Discworld floats through space on the backs of four elephants which are in turn borne upon the back of a massive cosmic turtle. It’s an impossible world, suffused with magic and governed by Narrativium, the force of story. It is here that Terry Pratchett has set nearly forty novels.

His most recent, Snuff, focuses on Samuel Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Fans of the series have followed Vimes’s progression from lowly policeman and recovering alcoholic, through various stages of promotion (and marriage to an aristocrat) to a position of great power. He is flawed, prejudiced, constantly insecure about his new position, and fundamentally decent – all of which make him a favourite with Pratchett fans.

In Snuff, Vimes and his wife Sybil take a holiday to her ancestral home. Pratchett often plays with genre tropes, and at first this is an obvious nod to the country house murder mystery. But Vimes soon discovers that the crime that has taken place is both darker and more widespread – everyone in the village seems involved or implicated, and the result is something closer to The Wicker Man than Agatha Christie.

Reviews of non-realist fiction often point out in tones of surprise that these books can still comment intelligently upon the real world. Recent Discworld books have been built around versions of the information age, religious fundamentalism and racial discrimination. In Snuff, Pratchett takes on another rather significant (and particularly horrible) piece of real world history – the slave trade. For the most part this is well done but it all falls horribly apart at the end. Discworld books, however dark they may be, have reasonably happy endings and something as vast and awful as this simply cannot fit into that sort of framework.

Part of the joy of series fiction is that it offers a far greater opportunity to watch characters develop. In addition to Vimes’ own development over several books, many minor characters have been fleshed out and given stories of their own. Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ wife has in previous books remained in the background, important to the plot but given very little development as a character. Here she is a character in her own right. So is Willikins, the manservant (think Jeeves, but with more concealed weaponry) who has in previous books been used partly for comic effect, and mainly as a symbol of Vimes’ changed social status. Most delightful of all is Vimes and Sybil’s son young Sam, now six years old and making a detailed forensic study of all the animal excreta that can be found in the country. It’s a clever reminder that the way in which small children experience the world is itself a sort of deductive science.

The author is known as a writer of comic fantasy, but in Snuff the humour is comparatively muted. Young Sam’s unfortunate hobby provides a number of jokes and there’s a running gag about the use of “avec” in French (or on the Disc, “Quirmian”) food, but there’s none of the laugh-a-page hilarity of the earlier books. Even the footnotes, through which much of the comedy in these books is played out, have been been reduced. Where Pratchett’s wordplay comes to the forefront it is brilliant; a visit to Quirm has Vimes walking along the “Rue de Wakening” and a barge named “the Wonderful Fanny” makes multiple appearances.

The novels featuring the City Watch have begun to follow a rather similar pattern of late, and there is much about Snuff that is entirely predictable. But the warmth, the cleverness and the basic decency that come with every new Pratchett book are precious, and we should treasure them while we can.

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