The following review contains spoilers for any number of previous Discworld novels.
Every cop show has an obligatory “get stuck doing cop stuff while on vacation”. This apparently happens on the Discworld as well, because, in Terry Pratchett’s latest novel, Snuff, Commander Sir Duke Blackboard Monitor Samuel Vimes goes on vacation and ends up uncovering a pretty huge crime.
Snuff occurs about three years after Thud, the last City Watch-centric novel. Vimes’s son Sam (referred to herein as “Young Sam”, as per the book) is now six years old and, like all six-year-olds, is obsessed with poo. A trip to the Ramkin (Vimes’s wife comes from an absurdly rich family) estate, which is in the general vicinity of Quirm (think Paris), should afford Vimes and Lady Sybil a nice vacation, and will also give Young Sam the opportunity to examine many new varieties of poo. Also joining them is Willikins, Vimes’s personal butler/batman, who we’ve learned from previous books is not quite as pressed and proper as one might think.
The first third of the book is, in my opinion, the best of it. There’s a lot of rather typical Vimes-out-of-water moments, a lot of funny stuff with Young Sam and poo, and some good lines for Willikins as he takes on the role of Mr. Exposition (Willikins has been with the Ramkin family for many years). But, as is wont to happen with policeman-on-vacation stories, Vimes stumbles onto several crimes, including a murder, smuggling, and slavery. Without the support of any Watchmen from back in Ankh-Morpork, Vimes must figure out what’s going on, unravel both the low crimes and the high crimes, and not actually break the law in the process.
And, just in case you were worried, we also get a touch of Vetinari; some scenes with Carrot, Angua, Cheery, A.E. Pessimal, Fred, Nobby, and Constable Haddock; and even a Nac Mac Feegle in the form of Constable Wee Mad Arthur.
One of the major points of Snuff is to bring to light the plight of the goblins, a race of beings thought to be the lowest of the low. But, as with most races like that in Discworld (starting with the trolls, way back in The Light Fantastic), Vimes discovers that there’s a lot more to goblins than he — or anyone else — thought. And once he learns this, he becomes quite put-out that someone is transporting and enslaving the goblins to harvest tobacco in a far-off land. When Vimes gets put-out, things get done.
The second act of Snuff is stuff we’ve done before — Vimes training up a new constable (Guards! Guards!), Vimes investigating crimes against a race previously thought to be unworthy (Feet of Clay), Vimes using his cunning and experience to overcome the odds (The Fifth Elephant), and Vimes subverting the status quo in ways that shouldn’t work, but somehow do anyway (Jingo). It’s still funny and interesting, but it’s not new. Act Three is the obligatory “chase the bad guy” sequence, and a lot of action occurs. I won’t spoil it for you, except to say that the word “damn” is used a lot.
As I said before, Act One really is the best part of the book, because we’re being reintroduced to characters we haven’t spent a lot of time with since 2005’s Thud. Plus, at that point the story is simple: Vimes is going on vacation with his son. Once we get into Act Two, we get a lot of the same old Vimes-isms we’ve been getting since 1996’s Feet of Clay. I also thought the story started to get a little muddled at that point, and a little too overcomplicated.
Terry Pratchett, as is widely known, suffers from posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s that affects his motor skills but not his mental faculties. As a result, he must write via dictation, either to his assistant or to a computer. I’m not a professional writer*, but I do know that I have a much more difficult time writing if I try to dictate a story than if I actually type or write it. My guess is that Pratchett has overcome this issue, although it seems to me that the tone of the books has changed slightly, become more urgent.
In 2009’s Unseen Academicals I observed a lot of the same type of plot overcomplications as in Snuff and noted in my review of I Shall Wear Midnight — Pratchett’s previous novel — that it felt as though he was trying to shoehorn in all the ideas he’s wanted to address in future Discworld books but feared he would be unable to do due to his illness. I didn’t observe quite as much of that in Snuff, but there was still attention paid to things that I thought took away from the story. Examples include Vetinari finally finding out who writes the Times crossword puzzles, Lady Sybil using her influence to make a change in the world, and Willikins revealing to the audience what Vimes already knows: that he’s much more than your average batman**. These are all subtopics that really could have their own book, or at least their own primary subplot, but they seemed unnecessary — although certainly well-written and well-integrated into the plot of Snuff.
And that brings me to my final problem with the novel: the title. Snuff means many things, including:
- Kill, as in a snuff film.
- Un-light, as in snuffing out a candle.
- A form of tobacco.
Some of these things did happen in the book, but I’ve got to think there was a better title out there somewhere. Snuff just… didn’t fit. Not to me.
Despite all of these concerns, I don’t want you to think that Snuff isn’t a good book, because it most definitely is. Pratchett’s customary humor and wit are present throughout, and the writing remains as wonderful as ever. My inner 12-year-old appreciated all the poo references, and if we’ve already done the goblin thing back when Vimes visited the Low King, at least it’s done well again. Snuff isn’t going to make the list of my favorite Discworld novels***, but I certainly enjoyed it and am looking forward to the next one.
Note to Parents: I’d rate this book PG. There’s some violence, and some mild language, and a couple of non-explicit sexual situations (Vimes and Lady Sybil are married, after all). However, it’s nothing worse than what you might see on an episode of House or Smallville. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
** Don’t get too excited; he isn’t a superhero. Although that would be an interesting thing to address in a future Discworld novel.
*** 10. Jingo. 9: The Truth. 8: Reaper Man. 7: Maskerade. 6: Small Gods. 5: Moving Pictures. 4: Lords and Ladies. 3: Soul Music. 2: Feet of Clay. 1: Men at Arms.