The cover gives it away, I thought. And so does the text on the back cover! Readers are being set up for a murder mystery, but whodunit, or rather whatdunit, is clear from the very beginning, if not before. I was all set to be cross at having the mystery solved before it had even properly started.
With Terry Pratchett in charge, I should have known better than to think things would be simple. Yes, a golem committed the murder that opens Feet of Clay. But which golem? There are far more of them in the city of Ankh-Morpork than one would have thought. And what about this other thing? The Patrician, apparently being poisoned? And this other thing, too? And this other, other thing that seems unrelated but probably is related after all?
Pratchett deftly weaves together several threads in this novel of a Night Watch that has moved ever closer to respectability since it was first introduced in Guards! Guards! as a collection of three or four lost souls, mostly drunk, and careful to keep away from crime, lest the other side take them seriously enough to cause real harm. The Watch has grown, and now incorporates most of the species who make their home in Ankh-Morpork: dwarves, trolls, and the occasional undead in addition to more familiar figures of humanity, no matter how odd. They are even beginning to engage in detective work, though they are not entirely sure how it should be done.
It also seems that someone powerful, or perhaps powerful someones, thinks that Ankh-Morpork should have a king. Samuel Vimes, commander of the Night Watch and descendant of the city’s most famous regicide, has firm views on that topic.
Royalty was like dandelions. No matter how many heads you chopped off, the roots were still there underground, waiting to spring up again.
It seemed to be a chronic disease. It was as if even the most intelligent person had this little blank spot in their heads where someone had written: “Kings. What a good idea.” Whoever had created humanity had left in a major design flaw. It was its tendency to bend at the knees. (p. 96)
He knows which side he is on.
Anyway, [Officer] Angua seemed to have taken this case personally. She always had a soft spot for the underdog.
So did Vimes. You had to. Not because they were pure or noble, because they weren’t. You had to be on the side of the underdogs because they weren’t overdogs.
Everyone in this city looked after themselves. That’s what the guilds were for. People banded together against other people. The guild looked after you from the cradle to the grave or, in the case of the Assassins, to other people’s graves. … The arrangement sounded unreal, but it worked.
It worked like a machine. That was fine except for the occasional people who got crushed in the wheels. (p. 153)
He is also a copper, through and through.
Something big and dark leapt down, knocked him to the ground and disappeared into the gloom.
Vimes struggled to his feet, shook his head and set off after it. No thought was involved. It is the ancient instinct of terriers and policemen to chase anything that runs away. (p. 154)
A quick aside reminds readers of Vimes’ struggles with alcoholism.
Vimes sat gloomily behind a glass of lemonade. He wanted one drink, and understood precisely why he wasn’t going to have one. One drink ended up arriving in a dozen glasses. But knowing this didn’t make it any better. (p. 181)
These excerpts have focused on Commander Vimes, but the Night Watch is a richly comic ensemble, with situations arising from their characters as established in previous novels and with new information from this one. Officer Angua, who is a werewolf, learns that she is not the only member of the Watch to keep some of her background hidden from most of her colleagues. One of the officers who is a dwarf is also female.
“It’s like that in the Watch, too,” said Angua. “You can be any sex you like provided you act male. There’s no men and women in the Watch, just a bunch of lads. You’ll soon learn the language. Basically it’s how much beer you supped last night, how strong the curry was you had afterwards, and where you were sick. Just think egotesticle. You’ll soon get the hang of it. And you’ll have to be prepared for sexually explicit jokes in the Watch House.”
“Mind you, that seems to have ended now,” said Angua.
“Why? Did you complain?”
“No, after I joined in it all seemed to stop,” said Angua. “And, you know, they didn’t laugh? Not even when I did the hand gestures, too? Mind you, some of them were quite small gestures.” (pp. 193–94)
If Pratchett seems to have anticipated a theme of US politics this year 20 years in advance, he also has a few words that could fit Black Lives Matter.
“That’s blasphemy,” said [spoiler].
He gasped as Vimes shot him a [look that could kill]. “That’s what people say when the voiceless speak. Take him away, [officer]. Put him in the palace dungeons.” (p. 392)
As well as the temptation always facing the police, as the people empowered to do violence on fellow citizens when the state requires it.
And maybe a watchman had seen civilization with the skin ripped off one time too many and stopped acting like a watchman and started acting like a normal human being and realized that the click of the crossbow or the sweep of the sword would make all the world so clean. (p. 393)
Though there are serious moments to the book — not least several reflections on watching the watchmen — they share pages with rich bits of comic business. What Nobby says about royalty, for example, or the effect that Carrot has on most everyone he comes into contact with. There is a chase-scene farce that the Marx brothers should have been in charge of. Vimes’ concluding dialog with the Patrician is a splendid and hilarious piece of extended drollery, each saying what he has to say, given the roles involved, but getting quite different messages across.
Sir Terry often quipped that the “services to literature” for which he was knighted consisted of not writing any. Feet of Clay shows how clearly he was having everyone on with that remark; he was writing great books, and knew it very well.