Terry Pratchett Book Club: Men at Arms, Part I

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Welcome back to the Terry Pratchett Book Club! We’re back from an extended end-of-year/beginning-of-year hiatus, and ready to delve into Men at Arms.

Summary

Carrot writes a letter to his family: He has been made a corporal in the Watch and there are many new recruits meant to reflect the city’s diversity. Vimes is leaving the Watch to get married, so they’re not sure who the new captain will be. Meanwhile, Edward d’Eath, assassin and son of a once-wealthy family, has decided that the reasons for all his troubles could be fixed if Ankh-Morpork returned to its past; a chance encounter with Carrot makes him believe this is possible because he is certain that Carrot is their king. He makes a presentation to a collection of city nobles, who are by no means convinced or interested, but d’Eath is adamant that something must be done to bring Carrot to his rightful place. Sam Vimes goes to see Vetinari about who will replace him as captain now that he’s getting married and retiring. The Watch currently has three new “affirmative action” recruits—Detritus the troll, Cuddy the dwarf, and Angua (who Carrot believes has been hired because she’s a woman). He’s busy showing Angua the ropes during the Day Watch when they catch unlicensed thief, Here’n’now. Elsewhere, Edward d’Eath kills a clown named Beano.

Sam goes to the mansion to see Sybil, who makes certain he’ll be available for the dinner she’s hosting to help get him connected to powerful people. She also tells him to be on the lookout for a dragon named Chubby, who she rescued from a blacksmith. (Sibyl doesn’t know that Chubby was stolen.) Colon, Nobby, and Carrot are outfitting the new recruits; Carrot has them take their oath. There are separate marches among the troll and dwarf population of the city that day, and the groups will run right into each other (and hate each other), so the Watch has to be on hand for what is sure to be a riot. Colon sends Carrot out to meet them before a fight breaks out, but Carrot brings Cuddy and Detritus with him, who begin to fight while he’s trying to calm things down. Carrot calls for a salute, which leads to Detritus saluting while he’s holding Cuddy, knocking them both unconscious. Carrot proceeds to tell the dwarfs off and make them drop their weapons. Then he sends the trolls off as well. And then there’s an explosion.

Vimes is thinking about his impending marriage and his previous captain, who retired but promptly came back to tend the guard until he died. He goes to meet with Mr. Morecombe, the Ramkin family solicitor (who is a vampire), and he tells Sam that Sybil will be giving him control over all of her money and property in a somewhat old-fashioned move… and she owns a tenth of the city. He’s sitting stunned at his desk when the explosion happens, and looks out the window to see smoke at the Assassins’ Guild. The Watch converge on the guild’s building, and Angua makes friends with Gaspode the talking dog (because she’s a werewolf). Sam asks Dr. Cruces, the Master of Assassins, what happened; when the fellow suggests he has no right to that information, the letter from Sybil’s lawyer makes the man think otherwise. Cruces claims it was just fireworks that exploded. Gaspode tells Angua that it was a dragon that exploded. The Watch leaves and Cruces demands that the premises are searched, and goes to tell the Patrician about what’s happened. The Watch begin to put together what they noticed, as d’Eath looks upon his stolen item from he Guild…

Vimes is on patrol with Carrot. They talk about the problem with kings, and then find (due to Gaspode) Chubby’s collar on a gargoyle, confirming that it was a dragon that blew up at the Guild. Cruces tells Vetinari about the stolen item from the Guild, and asks him to keep Vimes out of this business, which the Patrician agrees too. A dwarf named Bjorn Hammerhock is murdered. Vimes and Carrot ask Sibyl about how Chubby might have died; they figure out that a mirror was used to frighten the dragon into defending itself against another male dragon. Colon tries to train the recruits and winds up insulting them for fighting amongst themselves and having difficulty with the equipment. He walks off, and Angua suggests that the three of them go get a drink together, which results in their coming across Hammerhock’s body. Vimes goes to tell Vetinari, who informs him that he is to stop investigating the Guild theft, and that the Day Watch commander, Mayonnaise Quirke, has jurisdiction over Hammerhock’s case. The Watch is drinking at The Bucket, thinking about Hammerhock’s death and how they need to do something about it. They find a card pinned to Colon’s shoe that reads “GONNE.” Carrot decides he’ll bring it to Vimes, but asks to escort Angua home on the way.

Commentary

We’re back with the City Watch for the first time since Guards! Guards! and damn if this book doesn’t just hit the ground running. Part of that is just plain experience, given that this is the fifteenth Discworld novel, and the other part is undoubtedly down to the police procedural style, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for messing about: You’ve got a crime to solve, and it needs to pop up in short order. We get a lot of references right off the bat, mostly to Hill Street Blues and Columbo, which is an excellent place to start. (It’s a relief that the story follows those types of shows more than, say, Law & Order.)

I’ve read that folks got aggravated with this book’s original cover, believing that some of the details gave away the plot. It seems that Pratchett was unbothered by it due to the procedural format, since watching the investigator piece together what happened is really what those stories are about, far more than the mystery of who did what. I would argue that the entire book functions that way, really—there’s a lot of setup that you can probably guess the outcome to, but that doesn’t make it less enjoyable. Cuddy and Detritus’ animosity is a great example of this, as is Vimes’ growing unease at the thought of leaving his job.

Despite Edward d’Eath being a pretty canned villain for the start of the book, I’m always impressed by how well the narration unspools him to us and makes him interesting for as long as he needs to be. For instance, this time around I got real stuck on “He’s just retreated, as people do when they feel under attack, to a more defensible position, i.e. the past” because… d’Eath is using this idea differently, but it applies to people everywhere, particularly toward the back-in-my-day lot. There are so many who use the past as a cudgel when they are faced with changes that they don’t like in the world.

This book contains the infamous Sam Vimes “Boots” theory of socioeconomic unfairness aside, which notably just led to the Pratchett Estate approving the use of Vimes’s name in creation of a price index that monitors cost inflation. It pairs down to one line in particular, being: “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.” This is true, and has been illustrated in numerous ways by very astute folks who are much better at economics than myself. But there is one piece that sticks out to me personally, being the sort of person who occasionally goes down internet rabbit holes about fashion history: Sybil wears her mother’s rubber boots and tweed skirt.

For reasons I still haven’t quite figured out (that’s a lie, the reason is that I have ADHD, and this happens a lot), I once spent a whole day looking into the history of American “sportswear.” Not the athleisure sort, but the post-WWII chinos-and-sportcoat variety. And one of the things about this era that fascinated me—you were considered more fashionable if you were wearing your father’s jacket. Having an item of clothing that was well-made enough to still be wearable and passed down was part of the pride and the look itself. So you see, the point isn’t just that Sybil can afford to spend less, but also that she can presumably do these things and still be considered a lady, still be fashionable in her own right. Her mother’s rubber boots and tweed skirt probably look fabulous, even if she doesn’t care much about that sort of thing.

I also have a soft spot for Vimes’ rant to Carrot about kings, making the most concise argument possible against a monarchy as a general system of governorship—being that, even if you got lucky and had a benevolent ruler, one day down that line, someone wouldn’t be so nice. There are plenty of other reasons that dispensing with monarchy is a wise idea, but this is honestly the easiest and simplest way to break it down. The gorgeous irony is that he is making said argument to a “rightful” king… but Carrot never did care much about those sorts of things.

Asides and little thoughts:

Obviously, Cuddy has a glass eye like Columbo, which means that I always picture him as Peter Falk with a big dwarf beard. Can’t say I’m too upset about that.
There is more than one wink-nudge aside about Angua’s ample assets, and as a person of formerly large breasts (I had them removed), can I just say… it doesn’t work for me. They’re annoying, but not for the reason cis men generally assume, and it makes the comedy fall flat. You can wear a flat chest plate even with big boobs because you wear padding with armor. They don’t really get in the way that badly when drawing a bow. (And yes, speaking from experience to both.) If you want to make jokes about boobs, there are much funnier things to note about how the particularly well-endowed treat them.
Given that the Slow Comfortable Double-Entendre with Lemonade is a play on the cocktail known as A Slow Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall, I find myself wanting to come up with the Discworld recipe for the drink using the same naming conventions this is built on. (What are the Disc versions of Sloe Gin and SoCo, for example?)

Pratchettisms:

Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which humans being constantly remind one another that they are… well… human beings.

He could think in italics. Such people need watching.

In a million universes, this was a very short book.

Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid.

He’d like to take this moment and press it carefully in a big book, so that when he was old he could take it out occasionally and remember it.

If the Creator had said, “Let there be light!” in Ankh-Morpork, he’d have got no further because of all the people saying “What color?”

Everyone nodded gloomily, including the little bugger and the bigger little bugger by adoption.

Next week we’ll read up to “You owe—hey, you owe me for three rats!”

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