Weekly Read: Snuff

Snuff is a very funny book. On the one hand this should come as no surprise, given that it’s part of the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, which is chock full of funny books. On the other hand it is kind of surprising because it is book 39 in the series (released only four years ago) and, at that point, one wouldn’t be surprised if Pratchett had shifted into coasting mode, resting on his laurels. Most long book series start off with a bang and slowly peter out. That Discworld didn’t is one of Pratchett’s many achievements.

Additionally, by this point Pratchett knew how not to play by the rules, if it suited his purpose. “Rules” tell writers that the inciting incident – the thing that drives the plot – should happen as early as possible in the book. It grabs the reader and focuses attention on what’s going on. But Snuff takes its leisurely time before things really get rolling, which allows Pratchett to do a lot of fun scene setting as his hero is transplanted from his familiar environment to something totally alien.

In this case, the hero is uber-cop Sam Vimes, head of the Ankh-Morpork city watch. Being a child of the Ankh-Morpork streets and a self-made man, Vimes is thrown into completely foreign territory when he and his family relocates to his wife’s family’s country home for a holiday. Awash in a world of rural oddities, rigid class barriers with matching rules of behavior, and the potential of not being a cop for a while, Vimes is completely, utterly, and hilariously at sea. In fact, I think I’d read a whole book of Vimes navigating this high society minefield.

But, this being a book about a cop on vacation, there is criminality afoot and it arrives in the form of the murder and mistreatment of goblins. Goblins are treated as vermin, killed or enslaved without thought, which rubs Vimes’s general egalitarian ideals the wrong way (in much the same way attitudes toward other non-humans did in Men At Arms). Vimes eventually gets his man, in rip snorting adventuring fashion, of course.

A large part of Vimes is that, regardless of where he is, mentally he’s always a cop. Similarly, just about wherever I am, I’m a public defender. That means that I can’t help but be troubled by Vimes as a cop. He’s given several chances to expound on law enforcement because he takes a young local constable under his wing and educates him. In particular, he excoriates the young constable for swearing allegiance to the local coven of magistrates who run the rural area rather than “the law.” It’s kind of inspiring, shot through with the idea that the law isn’t what men make it out of convenience and that all men are subject to it.

But Vimes then goes forth and makes the law whatever he wants it to be in order to get the bad guy. Most obviously, Vimes is a cop from Ankh-Morpork and has no jurisdiction outside the city walls. Several people mention this, but it doesn’t stop Vimes, who gets wishy washy about how some crimes are so horrible that jurisdiction is a technical issue to be dealt with later. He repeatedly uses threats of private violence (at the hands of his butler) to coerce information from people. He approves of vigilantes, noting that the law tends to deal with the lightly, if at all. He also shows no qualms about enforcing laws that aren’t even laws yet (involving goblin rights) – so much for ex post facto! To be fair, Lord Vetinari calls Vimes on this eventually, but it’s clear from the context that he’s throwing up a technical legalism (he cops to being the “local tyrant”) that the powerful hide behind.

To be fair, Vimes worries a bit about all this. Not a lot, but enough to recognize that his playing fast and loose with the law is something other people could do, too, and that might make it bad. But his wife shuts down those thoughts pretty quickly, countering that that it’s not so bad so long as it’s a good man doing it for a noble purpose.

Of course, that’s the problem. As I’ve noted before our culture loves stories about cops who work outside the confines of the law to get the bad guy. But bad cops do the same and – guess what? – they mostly think they’re doing it for the right reasons. Law places limits on behavior to prevent that from happening. Benevolent despots might not be that bad, but most despots aren’t benevolent, so that kind of unchecked power isn’t a good thing.

None of that should take away from the fact that Snuff is a fun, quick read. Pratchett was a master of language, puns, and quick jokes that land when you least expect them, yet manages deep sympathy with his characters. And Vimes really is a good guy, which makes his squishy relationship with the law so troubling. I wonder if characters like him contribute to the general idea that anything is OK in pursuit of the bad guy, whatever that might entail.



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