Twenty books into Discworld, Terry Pratchett has set up enough pieces of furniture in the various fictional rooms on the Disc that moving just a few of them around is bound to produce something interesting. In Hogfather, he has Death, Death’s granddaughter Susan, a member of the Assassins’ Guild who’s too good at what he does and enjoys it too much, and some of the senior faculty of the Unseen University. Pratchett also tries out one of the classical unities, setting the novel’s action almost entirely in one night, although some of the characters’ abilities mean that time does not behave in a strictly linear fashion when they are around. The particular night is the longest one of the year, when according to Disc tradition, the Hogfather speeds around on his sleigh (drawn by flying pigs) distributing gifts to children.
Only this year, something seems to have gone seriously wrong, and the Hogfather is nowhere to be found. His usual stand-ins are there for the commercial frenzy leading up to the holiday, but the jolly man in the red suit is not where he is supposed to be. That is the first sign that all is not well in the lattice of superstition and belief that supports much of the doings on the Disc. Death steps in to fill part of the gap, but he has to learn the role as he goes.
At a department store, a child has just agreed to be good in exchange for a toy castle, a play army
—and a sword. It was four feet long and glinted along the blade.
The mother took a deep breath.
“You can’t give her that!” she screamed. “It’s not safe!”
IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE.
“She’s a child!” shouted Crumley.
“What if she cuts herself?”
THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.
Uncle Heavy whispered urgently.
REALLY? OH, WELL, IT’S NOT FOR ME TO ARGUE, I SUPPOSE.
The blade went wooden. (pp. 142—43)
There are places where even Death may not go, and one of those appears to be the root of the problem. So even as he gets better at playing the Hogfather — as when he conjures up a pony for a little girl who lives on the third floor
“‘ere, you didn’t really put a pony in their kitchen, did you” said Heavy Uncle Albert as the line moved on.
DON’T BE FOOLISH ALBERT, I SAID THAT TO BE JOLLY.
“Oh, right. Hah, for a minute—”
IT’S IN THE BEDROOM.
“Well, it’ll make sure of one thing,” said Albert. “Third floor? They’re going to believe all right.”
YES. YOU KNOW, I THINK I’M GETTING THE HANG OF THIS. HO. HO. HO. (pp. 163—64)
— his role is just a holding action. Someone has to find the Hogfather and try to sort out the situation. Death, though, cannot interfere directly.
“Where’s that come from?” [asked Albert].
A PLACE I CANNOT GO.
Albert looked down at the mysterious corpse and then back up at Death’s impassive skull.
“I keep thinking it was a funny thing, us bumping into your grand-daughter like that,” he said.
Albert put his head to one side. “Given the large number of chimney and kids in the world, ekcetra.”
“Amazing coincidence, really.”
IT JUST GOES TO SHOW.
“Hard to believe, you might say.”
LIFE CERTAINLY SPRINGS A FEW SURPRISES.
“Not just life, I reckon,” said Albert. “And she got real worked up, didn’t she? Flew right off the ole handle. Wouldn’t be surprised if she started asking questions.”
THAT’S PEOPLE FOR YOU.
“But Rat [the Death of rats] is hanging around, ain’t he? He’ll probably keep an eye socket on her. Guide her path, prob’ly.”
HE IS A LITTLE SCAMP, ISN’T HE?
Albert knew he couldn’t win. Death had the ultimate poker face.
I’M SURE SHE’LL ACT SENSIBLY.
“Oh, yeah,” said Albert, as they walked back to the sleigh. “It runs in the family, acting sensibly.” (pp. 248—49)
And with that, the caper is on. Though acting sensibly is likely to be the death of someone. Or even several someones.