Snuff, by Terry Pratchett

Standing up for goblins’ rights

The Discworld novels have always been among the most serious of comedies, the most relevant and real of fantasies; they are a neatly formulaic structure which enables Terry Pratchett to make editorial comments on moral, social and political issues from a more or less liberal standpoint. If they have a fault, it is that they are a little too self-consciously a Good Thing.

What they are not is smug; one of the real strengths of this new book, with its dissection of the casual prejudices which enable atrocity, is that it starts at home. Before Sam Vimes, honest cop turned reluctant aristocrat and diplomat, can dash around punishing hate crime and freeing the enslaved, he has to acknowledge his own lazy thinking about goblins. If the utterly marginalised smell, and steal chickens, and have a cultural response to the sadness of a mother who has to eat her newborn child, this says more about what has been done to them, than about what they are. Before Vimes can become a liberator, he has to acknowledge that he has been a bigot.

Pratchett has been rightly praised for comic invention and whimsy; he does not always get enough credit for the psychological comedy of embarrassment which makes us blush with self-recognition at the same moment in which we laugh. The difference between him and his many imitators is that, at his best, there is nothing comfortable about his comedy.

Like the film Hot Fuzz, Snuff takes a tough urban cop and dumps him in the middle of the rural landscape of the cosy crime novel. Vimes takes a holiday at his wife Sybil's country mansion and finding himself among wily peasants and a gentry whose conversation is all about their own entitlement to rule and casual contempt for the poor and other species. Vimes is one of Pratchett's finest creations because his entire life is a constant simmer of indignation carefully controlled; he is the noir detective who tells the truth because his own self-analysis is equally merciless.

If there are weaknesses here, it is partly that the scruffy, scrawny goblins end up somewhat sentimentalised. Vimes learns to respect them by meeting a girl harpist whose work speaks across cultural barriers. In some ways, the best scene of bigotry-busting is one in which a couple of his subordinates are bamboozled by a goblin shamaness who compels respect by utter obnoxiousness. Still, there is something refreshing about a book in which fighting for someone else's rights has to be followed by getting them inscribed in the books of law. Pratchett's comedy is at once hilariously cynical and idealistically practical.