Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review of "Night Watch" by Terry Pratchett

"Night Watch" is the 29th of Terry Pratchett's book set in his Discworld and the 7th starring the Ankh-Morpork city watch. The main character is, of course, the capable and cynical Sir Samuel Vimes, commander of the watch and Duke of Ankh.

This time, Vimes is accidentally tossed back in time by a freak magic storm into his own history. Unfortunately, at the time of the storm, he was locked in mortal struggle with the heartless criminal Carcer, who appears in the same time and murders Vimes' former mentor and Sergeant-at-Arms, John Keel. Vimes is recruited by the History Monks, guardians of time, to play the role of John Keel, teach his younger-self how to be a good copper, and nab Carcer before he causes more damage. It's another great adventure which Vimes negotiates by scowling, improvising and outsmarting his opponents.

Unlike The Fifth Elephant, which I reviewed about a year ago, "Night Watch" handles its exposition brilliantly. Though Vimes appears in a different time, no exposition is offered except that which is absolutely necessary. Though the Time Monks had been active in previous Discworld novels, though the readers were unfamiliar with the time period, and though history was being repeated for Vimes, there are no long expository diatribes. I was able to navigate the tale perfectly and something interesting is always happening.

The climax of the story is very moving, and while comedy is always present in Discworld, "Night Watch" manages to negotiate the unsteady line that plagues every story that tries to tread between humour and drama. I loved this story.

4 1/2 lilac-honoured graves out of 5

This story, more than the others in the City Watch series, presents interesting ideas about policing. More such ideas were featured in HBO's series "The Wire", which also happens to be the best television show I've ever seen. Vimes' unconventional policing style works wonders in Ankh-Morpork. I wish it could be applied in the real world. Can it?

Vimes' watchmen are peace-keepers. It is achieved thusly:

1. Being a part of the community. Vimes and his best officers know everybody on their patrol. They know every street and alley. They know who is worth querying and how to negotiate with them. They are not uniforms, they are members of the city that everybody knows. In "Night Watch", when a riot brews outside the watch house, Vimes puts his most harmless-looking coppers in front of the station and serves the gathered crowd cocoa. When a troublemaker hurts himself by smashing a bottle, he gives the man medical treatment and allows people inside the station to make sure he's okay. Vimes' coppers do not cause confrontations or exacerbate them with fear or anger.
2. Ignoring mostly-harmless illegal stuff that you can't do anything about. From prostitution to slightly-illegal sales to public drunkenness to Corporal Nobbs' casual kleptomania, the City Watch ignores a wide variety of crimes. This allows them to concentrate on policing more serious crimes. A similar idea is expressed in "The Wire", when Howard "Bunny" Colvin discusses alcohol in public. A law prohibiting displays of alcohol on the street was turning people, for example, friends enjoying a beer on their front steps into criminals and distracting police resources. The solution: a paper bag. The bag allows police to look the other way and law-abiding citizens to continue to stay out of jail.
3. Arrests with as little violence as possible. The courts are supposed to be society's instrument of punishment. Furthermore, violent scuffles and fights can disturb the community and cause harm to innocent people. Vimes uses reason and intimidation to get criminals to surrender peacefully, and if this fails, uses quick and intelligent action to incapacitate. He routinely orders constables to leave their swords behind and instead carry clubs (like English bobbies) in order to prevent conflict escalation with criminal groups.

Think about your own local police force. Do they resemble Vimes' watch, or are they a faceless uniform that cruises downtown in a police cruiser and occasionally gets embroiled in some racist scandal? Just saying.

I'm sure greater minds have considered this stuff, so I'll shut up now.