Men At Arms by Terry Pratchett

Men-at-arms-coverAnkh-Morpork, the largest city on the Discworld. At night, all that represents the law are the Night Watch – Captain Sam Vimes, Sergeant Fred Colon, Corporal Carrot and Corporal “Nobby” Nobbs. But things are changing. Vimes is retiring, marrying into the upper classes. And, in the name of diversity, there are three new recruits. Detritus, a troll – the arch-enemies of the dwarfs; Cuddy, a dwarf – the arch-enemies of the trolls; and, worst of all, Angua, a w… well, some things shouldn’t even be said.

But out in the darkness, someone has plans – someone insane enough to think in italics. A plan that involves kings and clowns, assassins and beggars, dwarfs and trolls. And a strange stick that can shoot little lead pellets very, very quickly…

There are probably four benchmarks in my early reading life – four things that were always important to me. Agatha Christie, Doctor Who, Spider-man and Terry Pratchett. It was Terry Pratchett who I discovered round about the time that I ran out of Poirot books. I enjoyed the first three novels well enough, but it was the fourth book, Mort, that I fell in love with. Wyrd Sisters (the sixth book – it took me an age to find a copy of Sourcery) sealed the deal and every Discworld novel since then was basically bought on the day of purchase. I had the pleasure of meeting Terry at a couple of book signings – well, by meeting, basically giving my name and getting the book signed – but he seemed a lovely bloke. I heard him give a talk once at the Oxford University Scientific Society as well, where I remember him asking if there would be interest in another book featuring the City Watch, who had debuted recently in Guards, Guards! The answer was a resounding yes, and this book followed a year or so later.

[Yes, I know that answer didn’t actually cause the book to be written. But it’s nice to think that it helped.]

Anyway, this is a book review, not an author review. But, in light of the recent passing of Terry Pratchett, I thought I’d take a look at this one again, one that I mentioned a long, long time ago as one of my favourite mystery novels.

I love the Watch. They’re a homage to the policemen in films and books who stand in the background with the occasional line – usually “Yes, sir!” – but elevated to lead status. Vimes, in particular, has all of the trademarks of a noir hero. Drink problem, basically a decent man in a not-decent world, walking the streets for so long that he can recognise the cobbles under his feet. This isn’t a noir novel though – this is a proper little mystery, with clues and everything.

And the magical thing is, and this might well count as a spoiler, most people reading the book won’t even realise that this is a mystery. There is a cracking surprise towards the end that is totally and utterly fairly clued and you would read this not even expecting a surprise. So apologies for even mentioning there’s a twist, but I can’t praise it without saying it’s there. Sorry. Somehow I doubt it would pass the experienced crime reader, but it worked on the young me.

And it’s full of charm, full of wit. And it’s got a orang-utan in it and you can’t go wrong with an orang-utan.

Not every book featuring the Watch is a mystery – in fact, if I recall correctly, most of them aren’t and this is the only one that sticks in my mind as a “proper” mystery. But it’s an absolutely great one and a fine example of one of the great man’s works.

When I heard of Terry’s death, I was devastated – in part because such an important author to me was gone, but also at the realisation that I hadn’t anything by him for at least five years. I’m so pleased to have corrected that, and there’ll be more from the City Watch on the blog in the future. But for now, this one is Highly Recommended.

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12 comments

  1. For some reason I made it to the ripe old age of fifty-nine without ever reading a Discworld novel. I just purchased ‘Guards, Guards’ and can’t wait to become better acquainted with Sam Vimes.

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  2. I haven’t read much Pratchett (just a handful of the City Watch novels), but “Feet of Clay” was a fantastic fantasy-mystery, even including a locked (attempted) murder!

    And while not written by Pratchett, the PC videogame “Discworld Noir” was also a wonderful film noir-esque mystery adventure that also features the Watch.

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  3. I read the first two books in the series a couple fo decades ago but, for whatever reason, didn’t quite get into the swing of it despite having enjoyed them. This sounds like the right book and the right time to re-engage. He was a writer who mattered so much to so many people, most definitely worth celebrating.

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  4. I found Terry Pratchett via the first Discworld computer game a couple of decades ago and in the last couple of years or so I’ve been reading the books in order. His death is such a loss to the book community, but thankfully he has left us with a vast body of excellent work.

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