Terry Pratchett, Snuff, ISBN 9780385619264, Doubleday, Nov 2011.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.
Through the fathomless depths of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the universe is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.
-Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters, 1988
And after that, it’s turtles all the way down.
The Discworld is famous, and justly so. Pratchett’s compassion reaches as far down as his satire punches up, and his novels are known for their blend of absurdity, acerbity, and puncturing of cherished illusions – well-seasoned with a mixture of mythology and a generous helping of biting wit.
Alas, Snuff, the thirty-ninth novel of the Disc and the 8th to star Samuel Vimes, copper, is sadly toothless.
The scenario: His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh, Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, bowing to wifely pressure, has succumbed to that most terrible of fates: he is on holiday. In the countryside. The delights of Sybil Ramkin’s old country estate include ruminant dung, tea with the neighbours, and Young Sam’s delight in all things scatological.
Vimes needs the city. He needs crime. He doesn’t feel quite himself unless someone’s trying to kill him. Naturally, the countryside obliges him.
There is assault. Murder. Smuggling. Trafficking in illegal narcotics. Kidnapping. Riverboat travel. Floods. Stern chases. And there are goblins, almost universally considered not really people across the face of the Disc.
Also there is Willikins, Vimes’ gentleman’s gentleman. Who is as much a gentleman as Vimes is, and possessed of much less respect for the law.
Despite a rather bewildering array of events and intersecting characters, however, Snuff never quite rises above the level of… well, fluff. It’s not quite as lightweight a contender as
Faust Eric, or Moving Pictures, but it’s no Making Money or Unseen Academicals – and set against the high water mark established by previous Vimes/City Watch entries as Night Watch and Thud!, it can’t help but disappoint.
Which is not to say it’s not perfectly respectable fluff, but Discworld’s record leads one to expect more.
Aside from an over-emphasis upon the caricature of the hen-pecked husband whose wife rules his domestic life with a rod of iron,* and a rather unfortunate if lovingly-detailed tendency to dwell upon the fascination of young children – specifically Young Sam – with dung, where Snuff really falls down is when Pratchett turns the headlight of his humour on the social milieu of the country gentleman en famille. It falls flat, in part because it doesn’t really engage on an intellectual or emotional level with the class base of the post-feudal pre-modern “gentility.” (Shoehorning in a cameo for a not-Jane-Austen doesn’t help: it merely shows up the shortcomings more clearly.)
And it falls flat because Snuff is a novel whose protagonist is at times without a focus. Vimes is at his best when he is being Vimes, copper, thief-taker, watchman. Vimes the family man is an odd, alien creature, prone to ruminating upon the injustice of not having enough bacon in his bacon sandwiches: Vimes with his copper-senses tingling on the trail of crime is much more compelling. The best moments, when the narrative comes alive and hints at the book this could have been, are when Vimes is interacting with Feeney and his old mum. Feeney is a very young local constable whose first appearance involves attempting to arrest Vimes for murder: Vimes, naturally, takes some small exception.
The book promises much, too, when it comes to the goblins and their religion of unggue, and Miss Felicity Beedle, the Discworld children’s author to whom Young Sam refers as “the poo lady,” who is teaching young goblins to read and play the harp. There are some few fabulous moments underground, with Vimes, the goblins, and the Summoning Dark, and back in Ankh-Morpork, Sergeant Colon’s encounter with a very special unggue pot proved intriguing. But the thematic arc of goblin vindication fits awkwardly, and is disposed of rather lightly in favour of murderers, smugglers, riverboat-chases, and an almost buddy-cop vibe between Commander Vimes and Chief Constable Feeney: together they fight crime!
Pratchett’s work is never less than entertaining. Although it is a slighter entertainment than has been his wont, and not as well-constructed, Snuff is no exception to that rule. For a Discworld fan, it is worth the effort; but for a more irregular reader of Sir Terry, or one coming to his work for the first time, it is not a stellar choice. Much to my regret, I can only recommend it in a qualified, half-hearted sort of way.
*One expects at the least a more inventive use of the trope from Sir Terry.