In 1994 I discovered Terry Pratchett’s debut Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. The story of an inept wizard living on a flat world supported on the backs of four elephants, themselves traversing the void on the back of a giant space turtle, held a carny-house mirror up to the world of fantasy (of which I was fairly enamoured at the time), and sometimes reality itself, leaving me breathless (and occasionally a tad damp) with laughter. I quickly caught up to Pratchett’s publishing schedule and over the intervening years I have read around 90% of his output, which is no mean feat; the man is prolific like a fox. I’ve had a few favourites in that time and I’ve read most of his books multiple times including one that I’ve read eight times (Reaper Man, if you’re curious), but eventually a certain subset started to stand out. Pratchett has a handful of main characters that he has followed through multiple books (and a wealth of supporting characters that pop up here, there, and everywhere) and Commander Samuel Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch soon became, if not my favourite character, the lead character in my favourite books. I’ve eagerly awaited new Vimes books over the years, so I was quite excited recently when I saw Snuff on the shelves.
For the uninitiated, Sam Vimes is an anti-authoritarian copper so street-wise he could easily be a criminal, were it not for his utterly unshakeable moral compass. Think Dirty Harry meets Nixon’s good twin (Nixon was so comprehensively evil he could only have been someone’s evil twin, and that twin would have been a shining light of purity). Over a number of books, Vimes chases thieves and murderers around the city and eventually beyond it. His policing frequently strays into the realms of international diplomacy, despite his best efforts. Snuff finds him on holiday in the country, completely out of his comfort zone, what with the general lack of night-time city noise and people stabbing each other and throwing each other’s corpses in the river. Or onto the river, anyway. Happily, this state of affairs rapidly and predictably degenerates into a murder investigation with a side helping of righteous rage over some extreme racial vilification.
“[Harry King] was a scallywag, a chancer, a ruthless fighter and a dangerous driver of bargains over the speed limit. Since all of this was a bit of a mouthful, he was referred to as a successful business man”
Pratchett has traditionally done a few things really well. His meat and potatoes, as it were, are wit and satire; he has a way with words and particularly a way of presenting everyday events and institutions so as to make them seem completely absurd. Early on, a lot of the satire was focused on the tropes of fantasy stories but increasingly Pratchett turned his warped perspective on physics, philosophy, mythology, and the everyday. One of the best examples of this treatment are Pratchett’s characters, most of whom are walking archetypes. This might bother some people but personally, I love it; they are by no means cardboard cutouts, just a little more tightly themed than, perhaps, the next character. Over the decades that he’s been writing, Pratchett has also become a pretty dab hand at weaving a gripping and, perhaps more importantly, entertaining, story. And Snuff is certainly an entertaining story but it doesn’t go above and beyond in the way that I have come to expect.
The sad truth is that Terry Pratchett is a writer in decline. Personally, I suspect he peaked sometime around Thud (also a Vimes book), a good few book back. Snuff progresses a bit too linearly and fails to really put much challenge in Vimes’ way, the supporting characters (normally so strong in these stories) are a bit lack-lustre, and there are definitely points where the writing is not quite as coherent as one might hope. For all that, it is a thoroughly entertaining read, but you probably have to be a Vimes fan already. And by fan, I possibly mean addict. That said, damn, Vimes is the man! I certainly enjoyed this book and it picked up at the end but there is a pile of Pratchett books as long as my arm that I will reread, possibly multiple times, before I ever come back to it.
The Verdict: Not so much Vimes, as the slightly sinister shadow Vimes makes on the wall of the cave. 3 murderous holidays in the country out of 5.