Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

I expected to hate this book even before I began reading it. In my opinion, Pratchett’s best was in the early nineties, and I don’t think there’s been a really good Discworld book (outside the YA series, which I haven’t yet read) since Night Watch in 2002. In particular, I thoroughly disliked the last Watch book, 2005’s Thud!, and the thought of another entirely Vimes-centric novel, with heavy re-use of the Summoning Dark idea, did not fill me with delight.

And yet I bought it in hardback the moment it came out. Alack my indefatigable optimism.

As I started reading Snuff, I was horrified, and not in a good way. I rapidly downgraded my estimation of modern Pratchett from ‘tired, repetitive, unmagical, mostly pointless’ to ‘can no longer write’. Pratchett’s prose has always been the soul of his novels, and within pages it became evident that the soul had been ripped out. Exchanges had become ponderous, stilted, out of character – and dull. It’s not something you want to see from a favourite author, particularly not when the spectre of mental decay looms so unspeakably large in the shadows.

But actually, I really enjoyed this book.

The writing is never at the summit of what Pratchett has been capable of, but the first twenty, thirty, fifty pages are not representative of the quality of prose in the bulk of the book. I don’t know why they’re so bad – let’s say for the sake of charity that they represent the rust being shaken off as the machine gets going after long disuse. Because there is something brought to life here that I haven’t seen in Pratchett’s books for quite some time. I’m not sure what, but it’s there.

For the most part, Snuff doesn’t undo the flaws of recent Discworld books, but instead sidesteps them. It is still tired at heart, and repetitious – much of the levity feels forced and familiar, the central ‘theme’ of the novel (Vimes’ struggle with his own dark side) has been around since at least Men at Arms and possibly Guards! Guards!, and dominated both Night Watch (where it was welcome but overdone) and Thud! (where it felt like a reheated re-serving of Night Watch without the style and panache), while the once-wonderful world of Ankh-Morpork feels increasingly static and quotidian – unmagical. But all that matters rather less this time around, because we have something we haven’t had for quite a while – a jolly good story.

This is the great virtue of Snuff : it’s a book worth writing, not just because (as I feel has been the case with some Pratchett) it expounds a moral point or furthers his worldbuilding plans for the Discworld, but because it’s a jolly good story.

Snuff is a mystery-thriller. Vimes arrives at his wife’s (now his) country mansion for a relaxing holiday, only to find that Something Is Wrong. He’s not sure what, and he’s not sure what he can do about it, but there’s clearly Something Wrong, and he’s determined to Get To the Bottom Of It – as much as his wife will let him, of course, and in between dealing with his son’s newfound obsession with animal poo. The story that plays out is a slow-at-first but constantly accelerating tale of detection as Vimes must get to the bottom of the mystery, unravel the conspiracy that maintains it, and finally Put Things Right, culminating in a thrilling action scene.

In this, at least, the old Pratchett is back. The old Pratchett constructed tightly-plotted, tense, exciting, clever novels, and in this Snuff stands in sharp contrast to recent Discworld entries, which have felt at times as though the plot has been an afterthought to give the characters something to do.

This is also old-school Pratchett in its erudition. Like the great Discworld novels before it, this one will send the hardcore fans scurrying to compile the references, but this time it all feels less accidental, more purposeful. In many ways, this is a book of homage, with Pratchett’s debts to earlier authors proudly paraded – Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, and PG Wodehouse are particularly prominent, among others – as well as several quiet nods to his own previous work (most noticeably, the Zoons get a passing reference, 36-odd books after their previous appearance).

Another plus point for the novel is that the world –and the cast – seems far fresher, more lively, more vital, than in some recent books. This is largely possible through the familiar mechanism of putting Vimes in a new location: this time, the strangest and most fantastical location imaginable, the English countryside. Blending the grimy world of Ankh-Morpork with a hint of the unfamiliar, and isolating Vimes to solve the crime (almost) on his own, Snuff’s approach is strongly reminiscent of that of Night Watch, no bad thing at all (if only Pratchett would swallow his own sense of a progressing timeline and give us more prequels in the A-M of twenty or fifty years ago!). The far-less-succesful subplot set in the city re-iterates what a good idea it is to avoid setting anything in Ankh-Morpork again.

And yet – there are also things quite wrong with this book. Again we see an obsessive need to moralise and preach – Pratchett has always been politically and ethically vocal, but in the earlier works it was more subtle, more about how individuals should comport themselves and less about declaiming programmes of political policy. Here, Pratchett re-adresses issues of English class and multiculturalism raised in Unseen Academicals – more subtly and to better effect largely because there’s enough plot here to get in the way of the more shouty elements of the subtext. Which is a good thing, since fifty pages in I was really doubting whether I wanted to read a fantasy book about the plight of the Roma and the Irish Travellers. Don’t get me wrong, I almost always agree with Pratchett’s political views, I just don’t think his books should focus on them. It’s not what he does best. The political agenda is also made uncomfortable by the occasional reminders that Pratchett – for all that his heart is in the right place – has a positively archaic attitude at times when it comes to patronising minorities. His cameo impersonations of Vietnamese are cringe-inducingly racist, and the fat and jolly black woman called ‘Precious’ isn’t much better. Pratchett, of course, is not a racist – quite the contrary – but he’s clearly from a generation in which even non-racist people could acceptably make their eyes go slitty and put on a silly Chinese accent in public, in a way that is quite alien to modern sensitivities.

A bigger problem is that the characterisation is lavished solely on one character: Sir Samuel Vimes. Unfortunately, we already know Sam Vimes inside and out, so it feels like a lot of wasted effort. Meanwhile every background character is a silhouette – at best devoid of depth, and frequently painfully controlled by the dictates of the plot. [I find the continual idiot-meets-Vimes-and-in-moments-they-discover-hidden-potential characterisation frustrating to say the least]. I don’t understand the obsession with Vimes. Yes, he’s a good character – but we’ve seen everything he has to show. He’s limitless in abilities, adamant in will, and unimpeachable in virtue (which makes the continual ‘inner darkness’ theme feel weak – we know he won’t succumb, because he’s Vimes, and Vimes never loses… on which note, I’d like to see, if we must see more of Vimes, more of the decade-as-a-drunk Vimes, and how he got there), and we know him already. The Watch is full of interesting characters. Of course, having an annoying weakness for unconventional romance, I’ve wanted to see more Carrot + Angua since Men at Arms, but it’s not as though there aren’t other options as well (and more can easily be introduced if necessary).

Actually, that’s a point that hadn’t occurred to me before. A big reason Discworld is becoming stale, I think, is that the same characters are being re-used, rather than new characters introduced. At a quick count, in the first 18 novels, there are around-about 14 main characters (as in, that are the central character of the book, one per book (except I counted one each for the two storylines in Reaper Man) who were either introduced for the first time or that moved from supporting to lead status. In the remaining 16 novels, there have been, at a rough count, 4? I suppose you could say 5, if you count both the leads in Unseen Academicals. There’s nothing that demands, per se, that new leading characters be produced (most of my favourite Discworld novels do not introduce new leads) – but I think it’s a good illustration of the tendency away from the novel and exciting toward the repetitious and familiar. We’ve been reading about Vimes since 1989. I love Vimes, and I can see why it’s hard for both author and readers to let go – but he has nothing new to offer. [The only exception is his son – ten years from now, when his son is old enough to be a character in his own right, I think Vimes would become interesting again].  A simple fact: Vimes has been in all of the last seven non-YA novels. 11 of the last 16. Since 1994, we have never had more than two books in a row without Vimes in them. Enough with the Vimes!

It’s also not funny. There were a most a handful of ‘ha!’ moments, and the only brief chuckle was from a footnote that seemed to be a direct authorial insert. He doesn’t remember how to use footnotes, either. He puts them in because it’s expected of him, but they seem superfluous, lacking that manic distract-you-from-the-story quality. At least one of them was an ordinary paragraph just put into a footnote for no reason, with the next paragraph after the asterisk following on grammatically and semantically from the footnote, not the preceding main text. There’s nothing wrong with not being funny, of course, but it feels like one of Pratchett’s greatest weapons has been blunted. If there hadn’t been a great story attached, I’d wonder what the point of the book was, since it isn’t funny and it isn’t that insightful either, though lots of words are devoted to appearing insightful and funny.

The plot, meanwhile, while good, is not entirely satisfying in the end, all being wrapped up far too nicely and off-handedly. The balance of the book is also somewhat thrown off by the fact that the climax occurs fifty pages early than it should do.

These quibbles, I hope, demonstrate that I continue to have serious concerns about the direction of Pratchett’s work. However, even a nostalgic reader like myself must concede that there is an admirable vitality about the work that may not bring it to the level of his greatest books, but at least raises it above the level of his recent novels (again, I haven’t read the Aching books). It also shows concrete directions that Pratchett can take to re-enliven the series: make sure there is a good story, and take us (and the characters) out of our comfort zone.

So, in conclusion: it’s a step up from recent fare, and I’m glad I bought the book at once, and read it instantly. I’ll almost certainly do the same for his next book (unless, perhaps, it’s Raising Taxes). If I seem critical, it is to some extent because I hold Pratchett to a higher standard than I would an author with whose earlier and better work I was not familiar. This book is fun, exciting, enjoyable, and a step in the right direction. It is not, however, devoid of flaws, which remind us why a change in direction is needed.

Adrenaline: 5/5. Not perfect (the end is anticlimactic and the beginning is poor), but I read it within 24 hours, and would have read it in one sitting had obligations not intervened. It’s a slow and steady build-up to an explosive climax, which is the best scene I’ve read in Pratchett since… a long time ago.

Emotion: 2/5. I found it hard to care: about Vimes because I know him so well already and knew he was in no danger (the idea of bringing his son along was a great touch though, and certainly should be explored further if Pterry really must return to the character), and about anyone else, because… there was nobody else to care about.

Thought: 3/5. Meh. Nothing very deep or complicated. But the mystery element kept the synapses active.

Beauty: 3/5. Meh.

Craft: 4/5. Good plotting and construction, and mostly OK prose with some good bits. Let down by some bad bits (particularly the beginning), the lack of punch in the ending, and the fact that it seemed a little cardboardy around the edges.

Endearingness: 3/5. I enjoyed it, it was fun, I would read it again. The lack of novelty and the lack of emotion mean it wouldn’t leap to the top of the pile.

Originality: 2/5. To be fair, it doesn’t set out to be original – it’s almost an homage, both to Discworld itself and to mystery novels.

Overall: 5/7. Good. Not as good as I’d dared to hope, but a lot better than I’d feared. Promising.

 

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3 thoughts on “Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

  1. miekko says:

    Regarding stale humour, consider the role humour very often has in the majority of language games where it’s used: it’s an in-group marker, rather than a way of introducing new thoughts. Most jokes that are told are probably never held to be funny by anyone that listens to them. They’re just expected to be there, because then you can see who is in the know by observing who laughs. (At one point, I tried not laughing in such situations just to see what the consequences would be. Definitely a reduction in bonding, in being invited, etc)

    May I surmise that the first books did try to introduce new thoughts to a greater extent, and since then, the humour has turned into a in-group marker for those who share having been provoked into thinking those thoughts by the first books?

  2. miekko says:

    I was kind of expecting some kind of insight better than mine on this topic.

    My musing was somewhat ill-defined to some extent, but see that as a feature, not a bug. (e.g. provides me with space to weasel out of tight spots)

  3. Yeah, sorry I didn’t get back to you.

    I guess that could apply to Pratchett, but it seems like a bit of a cheap explanation. I don’t think Pratchett is that concerned with increasing his own rep with his fans these days. I think it’s more that he’s not as interested in the humour any more, but feels he has to live up to expectations, so his heart’s not in it. [Or maybe he’s just run out of jokes]

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