The late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is one of my personal favorites — hilariously witty, sardonic, and occasionally accused, justifiably, of literature. The Disc is both world and mirror of worlds, and in this vast and rangy series, Pratchett deep and complex themes in what is above all his fun way of writing.
Discworld is not best tackled as a unified series, but rather as groups of series set within the overarching continuity of the Disc setting. Beyond that, there are three phases to the Discworld novels as a whole: their formative phase, where the setting and parodic humor are substantially more important; the mature phase, where the setting drops into the background and the novels become more character-driven; and the late phase, where themes that slowly developed during the mature phase start to come together into a greater arc spanning the whole of the Disc.
We’ve begun our exploration of the Disc by tackling the Watch novels, the subgroup of eight novels that are one of the Discworld’s two flagship sub-series. Last time we explored Thud!; this time, we will continue the marvelous misadventures of Commander Vimes, Carrot, Colon, Cpl. C. W. St J. “Nobby” Nobbs, Angua, Detritus, and the out-and-proud-of-it (about being female, that is) dwarf Cheery Littlebottom in its sequel, Snuff.
Lady Ramkin has finally prevailed — Sam Vimes is to take a vacation in the countryside, away from the bustle of Ankh-Morpork, with their son, Young Sam, at their manor house. But where the Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is, crime is sure to follow, and sure enough, after Vimes puts a hotheaded young blacksmith in his place, the smith disappears and he is framed for murder. Poorly. But it makes it clear, someone doesn’t want Vimes there.
It turns out somebody was murdered — a goblin girl, one whose blood was used in the botched attempt to frame Vimes. And the goblins know Vimes is about and prevail on him in their quest for justice. As soon as he begins tugging at the loose end, Vimes unravels a criminal conspiracy large enough to threaten to bring down one of Ankh-Morpork’s most influential families. Oh, and that goblins themselves are a sapient species in their own right.
Snuff is, after Night Watch, the most Vimes-centric novel in the Watch arc, and — as Pratchett would never write another novel in that arc again, the last time we ever see His Grace Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, the Duke of Ankh, Blackboard Monitor. It is, at its core, the novelistic equivalent of a summer blockbuster where Vimes is hot on the trail of a criminal willing to do anything to throw him off it — a novel, in short, where Vimes is in his element, where the political subtexts of Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Thud! fade into the background, and Vimes, just by being Vimes, is able to accord a sentient species the rights they deserve almost as a by-product of his relentless pursuit of justice.
If Night Watch is, at some level, Vimes’ bildungsroman, then Snuff also does something else — it gives us a deeper look at Sam Vimes, as a character, than any other novel. Long gone is his constant alcoholic haze in Guards! Guards!; instead, Snuff showcases Vimes’ family relationships at the expense of his professional ones — his wife, Sibyl, and manservant (“gentleman’s gentleman”), Willikins, emerge as major characters here that they do not even achieve in The Fifth Elephant and Young Sam’s scatological inquisitions offer a background of comic relief.
Perhaps the most telling detail of how Vimes-centric Snuff is, is how it handles the novel’s secondary plot, where Fred Colon discovers, by sheer chance, a rare type of unggue (or goblin pot) in his cigar: there are, in all, maybe five scenes in the whole book devoted to this subplot, only two in which Carrot appears and one with Angua — a far cry from the significant Carrot-and-Angua subplot of The Fifth Elephant.
Nor are there structural reasons for this, the way there were in Night Watch . . . In Snuff Vimes has at last taken over the Watch series, and it is fair to say that, outside of perhaps the occasional adventure novel, Pratchett has found himself in a corner. The long-foreshadowed conflict between Vimes and Carrot is not, and will never be, resolved; instead, we see in Snuff that Carrot has chosen his own diminution in the face of Vimes’ and Vetinari’s competency.
While Snuff is the last Discworld novel we will tackle for a while — I remain uncertain on which arc to tackle next, for one thing (Witches? Death? Rincewind? Moist?) — we will finish off this, what has turned out to be a much more substantial project than I was intending, with an exploration of Commander Vimes’ personality and perhaps why Pratchett was unable to resolve the Watch arc the way he was originally intending.