Book review

Terry Prathcett: The Fifht Elephant

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Terry Pratchett is Terry Pratchett. Well, not all of the time, I admit. A person who writes as much as he does is bound to have better days as well as not-so-good-ones. But The Fifth Elephant is definitely in the "better days" category.

It's a Samuel Vimes novel. That in itself is a plus for me, because Sam Vimes is getting to be one of my favourite Diskworld characters. Another incompetent detective, he's got a unique Pratchett twist, in as much that he can be frightfully competent about policing when he finally realises what it is that he's supposed to be looking for. Which usually takes him some time.

What surprised me the most, though, is that, although this was a very good novel, and a fun read by all means, it wasn't very funny. I mean, it was funny as much as any of the outrageous Diskworld constructions and sidewise logic always are, but it wasn't screamingly, hilariously, tear-jerkingly funny. In all other Pratchetts that I've read (and I've read them all), there was always at least one moment when I had to stop reading and wait for a few moments before I could go on because I laughed so much. But here, there was no such moment. I giggled a few times, laughed out loud maybe once or twice, and I know that I grinned most of the time, but that was the extent of it. And, funniest of all, I didn't mind it one little bit.

There are two reasons why I didn't mind. One, like most Sam Vimes novels, The Fifth Elephant is largely a thriller, and at places it's tense enough to play violin on it, while at the same time never indulging in those boringly graphic descriptions of violence that most "serious" thrillers are so fond of nowadays. Perhaps, on second reading, I'll even laugh more, and will have the patience for a more leisurely read. And the other reason is that Pratchett is getting better and better every time with his characters.

Sam Vimes finds reservoirs of strength in him that he didn't know he had. His wife develops school friends, loses some of the iron in her nerves, and gets pregnant. Angua introduces her family, and we get to see what family life is like for those cornered between man and wolf. (And they're really dogs, you know.) The strongest developments, though, happen with Carrot, who leaves the Watch (yes, yes) to go after Angua when she disappears, and continues confirming that there's much more to him than there seemed to be at first.

In the meantime, with Vimes absent on a diplomatic mission to Ueberwald and Carrot leaving the force, Fred Colon has to deal with taking over the command. This is one of the funniest bits, although a lot of the younger readers are going to miss it, I'm afraid. Suffice it to say that, gradually, he develops an obsession with the amount of sugar in the storage. (No, he never starts playing with tiny metal balls, though I waited for it for half the book.)

There are also some very nice people there, including three sisters living in an isolated house and yearning to go to Ankh-Morpork. (Although this particular reference was a bit too strongly done for my taste. I didn't mind so much when the youngest sister asked to cut down the cherry orchard so they could build a skating ring, but when Vimes barged in and asked to borrow a pair of trousers, they remembered the things left over from Uncle Vanya... ) But, as is the case with the best of them, most of the other characters are not really very niceónor very unnice. Apart from the main villain (who's as villanous as the most villanous villain imaginable, to paraphrase another well-known British comedy), everybody is very, very gray, even grayer than is usual for Pratchett's novels.

So, there it is. Rather more cynical than usual, a lot less hysterical than usual, with a noblesse oblige Death cameo strictly for the fans, The Fifth Elephant is a lovely book. And, speaking as the ex-wife of a police officer and the owner of a small and occasionally smelly dog (Gaspod's in here, too), it's much truer to life than the majority of contemporary mysteries or any other books I've seen recently.