In Praise of Pratchett: Snuff


Knowing what I know now, Snuff cannot be anything but a sad book. Above all the other Discworld books, I have loved and still love the City Watch stories with the deepest satisfaction, and Sam Vimes, with his determined, dedicated, decency and honesty, won every day by his self-policing, is the character I have grown to care about the most. And this is the end. This is where we part. This is the point beyond which there is nothing more.
Oh, I know he appears again in Raising Steam, but that is only the external Sam, the shell of the man. It’s not his book, and that is only one aspect of him portrayed there. And though other members of the Watch do appear, they are no more than tokens. Snuff is not a City Watch book, it is a Sam Vimes book.
It’s also, for me, the last unequivocally good Discworld book, and I say that not because of it being a Sam Vimes solo book. It has a clear and precise theme, and employs Vimes at his most effective, as the archetypal copper, hot for justice for all, as a public duty, and not as a private convenience. In this book, the two principles combine.
It’s a solo because Vimes, at long last, is going on holiday. Despite all his hopes, prayers and despairing longing for a major crisis, the combined efforts of Lady Sybil and Havelock Vetinari have gotten Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork, for a whole fortnight (negotiated down from a month), in the country at Sybil’s ancestral country house. Leaving aside the presence of Sybil, and Young Sam – a bubbling, enthusiastic six-year old with a fascination for poo that might already shape his future career – it’s going to be hell.
But this is a classic example of the adage about you can take the man out of the copshop but you can’t take the copshop out of the man (not the original adage, of course, but an apt translation). Sam’s desperately out of place, out of his depth. All his antennae are tuned to the City. But that still leaves him attuned to human nature, so it’s easy to spot that something’s up.
All it takes is Vimes’ old enemy, Lord Rust, now ancient and wasted in a wheelchair, still arrogant and invincibly stupid though surprisingly warm towards Sam, to make an overly casual remark about there being no crime around here for Vimes to find, and the chase is on.
What there is going on is smuggling, of which the Patrician was well aware before his Watch Commander went for a holiday in the country. Except that this is not the ordinary run of smuggling, that Vetinari allows to encourage enterprise and invention, not to mention the safety-valve of small victories. This smuggling is by the local gentry: the landed, the rich, the lords, the local Magistrates, convinced that their superiority entitles them to ignore the Law, to operate their own law: privilege: private law.
If there was ever a man to bust up that kind of thinking, it’s Sam Vimes, but before he can do it he has to face a cheap frame for murder and the misguided goodwill of Feeny Upshott, the Law’s local representative, whom Vimes tutors rapidly even as he addresses him at all times, mostly sarcastically, as Chief Constable.
But there’s a bigger crime going on, an entirely bigger crime, both before and during the book, and it is this that forms the heart of Snuff, and it is again Redemption.
It’s a recurring theme through these final books, the novels written under the shadow. Once Pratchett learned that there was now a time limit, it is as if his mind concentrated upon the need to bring everyone into the fold, into the common wold of what, in Discworld has had to be a very broad definition of Humanity.
In Unseen Academicals it was Mr Nutt, the orc. In Snuff it is the Goblins. A race of people standing somewhere off to one side, universally despised as dirty, thieving, ugly, sub-subhuman. A race of people who don’t count, who are treated as vermin, who have been treated as such for so long that they have long since believed it themselves. In the bucolic, beautiful countryside they have been massacred and they have been enslaved to serve the smuggling business. And only a tiny, insignificant handful care, most of them not enough.
But the Goblins have beautiful, poetic, allegorical names for themselves. They create exquisite, incredibly fragile ceramics of intimate significance to their own, near-hidden religion. And they can make music that makes the heart weep, even that of Sam Vimes.
Much has to be done, before he can get to the end of this web of crimes, for killing Goblins and enslaving them has to become a crime in Sam Vimes’ world, even if the Law hasn’t caught up to that fact yet. There’ll be a hellride on a swollen river, guiding stolen barges full of Goblin slaves in the pitch dark, a sea-chase, the practical overturning of the entire Police force of Quirm, and one of Pratchett’s heedless psychopaths, intent on murdering Young Sam, and meeting his match at the hands of the world’s most street-wise Gentleman’s Gentleman (not a case for Jeeves, this one) before it comes out in the end.
And it comes out in the end because of Lady Sybil, as implacable, as dedicated, as straight, decent, honest and unable not to do the right thing as her husband. Lady Sybil organises a concert, a thirty minute piece played on the harp by a goblin girl. And the world changes, and Goblins become people in a glorious uplift that makes us want to believe that Prejudice and Hatred really can be overcome so easily in making our world, the round one, an incalculably better place.
As I said, Redemption. The local gentry are brought down, their selfish greediness, their belief in their own superiority undermined by Vimes and the real Law, the only Law. But the stupid woman who stands as representative of them, Mrs Colonel, can be redeemed from a distance by the fact that the Colonel, a splendid, dry old stick, a veteran, still loves her after forty five years.
And even Lord Rust, the fool of aristocratic fools, is allowed redemption. It is his son and heir who is behind the whole scheme, but Rust does not plead for these misdemeanours to be overlooked. In dignified manner, he accepts them as a crime, as an unredeemable shame on the family’s name, requiring reparation. All he pleads for is the clemency of exile, for the disinherited heir to go to FourEcks and expiate his crimes.
And Rust commends Vimes as a decent, honourable man, who has acted honourably and in true accord with his duty.
A beautiful book, an expansive book, a crying shame. Vimes does appear again in Raising Steam, in fact plays almost as large a part as Moist von Lipwig, but as I will say, that’s not the true Sam, the interior Sam. His story ends here, with Sybil and Young Sam, and what they go on to be and do can only be found in our own imaginations. Which, over thirty years, were constantly proven to be vastly inferior to those of Sir Terrance David John Pratchett.

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