Terry Pratchett, the author of Snuff, our July Lightmonthly Read, has been diagnosed with an early form of Alzheimer’s. No longer able to type, he now reportedly dictates to a software program. This was the first time I had read a Pratchett novel, and in researching the author and his book, I came across a couple of interesting things. First, the novel was scoring significantly lower on sites like Amazon than other Pratchett novels, and second, many of the book’s detractors were bewildered by what they had read, some of them seriously proposing that someone other than Pratchett had written the work. I can have no opinion on that, but learning that his earlier works were of a markedly different style does make me more inclined to give them a try.
Snuff is a Discworld novel, the most recent in a long line of stories from that fictional world. It tells the story of Sam Vimes, a “copper” in the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork who has married into aristocracy. An incorrigible workaholic, he is practically forced into a vacation outside the city, at the manor that he has inherited. While there, he discovers a murder and, relieved to have something to do that is work-related, investigates.
There was more libertarianism in this work than in the other finalists for the Prometheus Award, save for one, and I appreciated that. The main thrust is an exploration of goblins as sentient beings and Vimes’s chafing at the society that so badly esteems them and so poorly treats them. While much of it is a mere libertarian-friendly argument against bigotry, the novel increasingly turns towards the question of law and rights. Though it never delves as rigorously into the question as one would expect from, say, Hans Hermann Hoppe, there are a number of comments and even a discussion or two that dance around the theme of natural law versus man’s execution of his laws.
The novel started well, I thought. It was a bit short on atmosphere, but long on cleverness both in the dialogue and the narrations. It took its time to introduce us to the new society in which Vimes would be operating, and I generally appreciate patience in the early going.
There were only two things that put me off during the first third or so. One was the stereotypical relationship between Vimes and his wife Sybil. I do not know if the name chosen for his wife is significant, but it is the same as Basil Fawlty’s wife in Fawlty Towers, and the relationship between man and wife in Snuff, though overall far more positive, at least shares some aspects with that in the BBC series. Sybil, in both, is a bit of a scold and a killjoy, but whereas Basil Fawlty is a thoroughly detestable character and therefore we cheer when Sybil scolds, nags, and sometimes downright dominates him, Vimes is forthright, hard-working, a good father, and enlightened on questions of prejudice and intolerance. It irritated me when his wife did not permit him much bacon in his beloved bacon sandwiches, and it irritated me that he put up with it.
My second problem was the unimaginative way in which the principal conflict is introduced. Vimes, through his “copper sense,” suspects that something is not quite right and starts poking around the town to find out what it might be. That and nothing else alerts him to trouble. We are meant to believe that a man, in a place in which he has never been, in a rural setting when he lives and works in an urban one, can simply sniff out a crime because something is off. We are not even given a hint as to what it was that was off, whether the guilty mien of the townsfolk or their carefully averted eyes when he looks their way or anything else. He simply declares himself suspicious of something and begins to demand answers.
After the introductory third of the book, it goes downhill. The time spent meeting the various personalities of the manor and countryside is largely wasted because most of them are not woven into the fabric of the main story. One has to wonder what the point of their scenes was.
A handful of things were set up without further development and little to no payoff. For instance, Sybil takes Vimes to an afternoon tea with a friend of hers who has a number of daughters looking to find a husband and live a life of leisure. Vimes bears it silently for as long as he can but finally winds up delivering an increasingly unsubtle lecture to the ladies about perhaps rolling up their sleeves and doing something useful. This is a lecture that leaves the young ladies stupefied, but pleases the mother. Afterward, Sybil gives him a kiss and thanks him for being so dependable. It is a good scene, but then the daughters disappear until near the end of the book, where it is mentioned in passing that they seem to have obtained employment.
I feel like a more smartly wrought plot would have developed many of these other characters, if indeed they were to be introduced at such length, and incorporated them into the central story, conferring upon them an importance more in line with the time spent on them early on.
Later in the book, we are given a number of scenes back in Ankh-Morpork with the City Watch. These are characters who have figured prominently in previous Discworld novels, but their importance to the present one is a complete mystery. While early on one could easily see how this side story might eventually connect to the larger one, it never does. In fact, the entire thing could be omitted and almost nothing of the rest would have to be altered to accommodate it. It was an absolute waste of time.
SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER
The climax occurs with a large chunk of the book still to go. The main story wraps up, and what is left is a lot of protracted tidying up plus a new storyline involving the villain, an unimpressive one and only newly introduced, in his attempts to escape justice and have revenge on a family whom we never really feel is truly in danger. The number of new chapters one must go through after the story is essentially over is staggering, and I actually started to grow angry.
END OF SPOILER
The final serious flaws in the book are the dialogues, which at the beginning seemed clever but quickly start to test one’s patience. It seems that every character in this world is prone to delivering the same, rambling, page and a half of tangents, asides, and extra verbiage at precisely a time when a real person would utter a single, simple sentence. They are never interrupted, no matter how colossally they fail to keep it concise, and the same generic British flavor permeates every one. Any randomly chosen monologue in the book could have been uttered by any character, save for perhaps Sam’s six year old son and the goblins, whose dialect marks them as distinct (although there is no variation within that population either).
It is as difficult to say why the book went wrong as it is easy to say how. After having written so many books, Mr. Pratchett can be forgiven for pumping out one or two more after the well went dry, and nearly every well does to the artist who lives long enough. Alternatively, it could be the fault of his condition. Given the problems in structure and conception, and given the alleged radical change in writing style — especially with character speech — one can see how a man who can no longer write or type might have difficulty adjusting his writing process.
Whatever the reason, Terry Pratchett has a legion of fans who laud his books. Though many still seem to have enjoyed Snuff, I did not. However, I will not let that deter me from giving him another chance with one of his books that is almost universally adored.