Happy one-day-belated Glorious 25th of May! Let’s all sit out on the steps with cups of cocoa in remembrance. (I may have done this already.)
Vimes begins dispensing wisdom to his younger self, including that he can never take bribes, and that he should keep his thoughts to himself more often than not. He’s dismayed to find that younger him thinks Winder should be replaced with Snapcase, which he knows won’t go well. On their route that night, the officers have taken his instruction to roundup curfew violators over-literally to mess with him. He and young Sam take the prisoners over to Cable Street, but Vimes refuses to hand them over to Henry the Hamster without a signature, leading to the appearance of Captain Swing, who recommends letting the prisoners go instead. Young Sam is floored by this, though Rosie and her actual seamstress pal Sandra (who were rounded up) are getting suspicious about Keel. Vimes breaks into Tilden’s office on the correct suspicion that something has been stolen and finds the captain’s large silver inkwell stashed in his own locker. He places it elsewhere and goes out on patrol, only to get jumped by the Unmentionables. He beats them, and takes Henry to Doctor Lawn to get fixed up, then leaves Henry in an alley with his name on his cast, and sleeps the morning away.
He thinks back on Captain Swing, a former assassin who managed to get in well with Winder and become the head of the Unmentionables. When Vimes wakes, he runs into a very young Dibbler and inadvertently teaches him his signature catchphrase, eating an entire one of his mystery pies and finding a note inside with directions to a meeting that night. Then he realizes that he’s being followed by Nobby, who is currently an urchin who’s been put on his tail by Rosie; a woman named Lady Meserole; Coates; Corporal Snubbs; and one or two other folks. Vimes offers to pay Nobby if he’ll work for him from now on and let him know what everyone’s saying about him. Then he heads to the Watch House to learn that, shock, Tilden’s inkwell has been stolen. Knock recommends that they check lockers, starting with both sergeants, and is shocked when Keel’s is empty. They search the rest of the lockers and come up with nothing; Vimes put it in the house safe, knowing it’s a cruel thing to do to the captain, but unable to frame Coates as he’d intended after he’d seen what was in the man’s locker. He has Knock out for a chat and gets more info on Coates (the men think Keel is a spy for Winder at this rate), and takes young Sam out on patrol again.
At the Assassin’s Guild, the students are watching the headmaster having a conversation with the same Madam Roberta Meserole who is having Vimes followed. Downey harasses a fellow student who he calls “Dog-botherer,” and burns the book the boy is reading—it’s Vetinari, of course, who takes this in stride and heads to bed. Out on patrol, Vimes winds up cornering and arresting an Unmentionable who’s scoping out Morphic Street, but as he and young Sam go to bring him in, they are surrounded by Unmentionables… and Carcer has been put in charge of them. Young Sam has been ringing his bell as instructed, drawing in several officers, bringing the group to a stand-off. Vimes knows he’s changed history; there was a Morphic Street conspiracy that the Unmentionables raided. Carcer also now knows that the young man trailing after him is past Sam Vimes, which gives the murderer the upper hand. After the groups separate, a woman in a purple coach pulls up and lets two shadowy figures in. Back at the Watch House, the men barricade the doors and Vimes learns from Tilden that there’s been a riot in Dolly Sisters following a protest. He’s given leave to do “what he feels necessary”—and has the men unbar the gates and put down weapons to their shock.
Vimes goes to have a word with their Unmentionable prisoner after laying some traps for his cohort when they inevitably try to break him out (they do, and the traps work a treat). He then goes outside to see civilians spoiling for fights at their door, but calmly drinks his cocoa. One man demands to be arrested and breaks a glass bottle, but he does it poorly and only winds up cutting himself to shreds. Vimes tears up his shirt to make a tourniquet and has someone run for Doctor Lawn. They have to bring him inside to fix him up, and Vimes invites any of the onlookers to join, so they can see that they’re not going to hurt or disappear the man. Then a dead bowman falls off the roof, and they have to bring him inside too. Vimes asks Lawn to write up all the conditions of the injured and sign off on it. He sends Colon for ginger beer and when Fred comes back, he informs them that most the other Watch Houses are under siege by civilians. The assassin who killed the bowman about to kill Vimes turns out to be Havelock Vetinari, who meets with Madam Meserole… his aunt. He wonders if she will eventually want the man called John Keel killed, but she believes he can be harnessed. Vimes uses the “ginger beer trick” to get the Unmentionable in their custody to give up everything he knows, has the other two who broke in dropped off, and then gets hit over the head by Dotsie because “Madam” wants to see him.
It’s truly aggravating (complimentarily, of course) how good these books are at showing the way police procedure is intended to increase public trust and assure a lack of corruption, yet how effortlessly these methods can be twisted to opposite ends. We saw it happen in The Fifth Elephant with Vimes’s murder of Wolfgang; the fact that he very pointedly announces that he’s unarmed, that he shows his badge, makes his intentions clear, and uses the rules of “hot pursuit” to allow himself to chase Wolf through Bonk. We watch Tantony note for himself that Vimes absolutely commits murder, but turn it around to Vimes’s benefit, suggesting that he couldn’t have possibly known Wolfgang would catch the flare that exploded in his mouth. And in that book, we’re meant to go along because we know that Wolfgang is an absolute monster whose only desire at this point is to hurt his sister by killing the man she loves.
From a character standpoint, we side with Vimes because he’s doing something for Angua, helping a friend and saving her further pain, protecting Carrot. He’s also helping a lot of other people in Uberwald, preventing them from being Wolfgang’s future victims. That makes him the hero of the story, full stop, refusing to let people with little power get hurt by a man with metric tons of it, acting out of care toward people he loves. But it’s important that he suffers no consequences to those actions because he’s a cop. There’s always some hand-wave reason that protagonist characters in fiction avoid consequences to the havoc they inevitably cause—but Watch books don’t need hand-wave reasons because a very real reason is built in. We see that reason at work in the real world every day, to entirely ignoble ends.
Sam Vimes always talks about how it’s his job to “keep the peace,” but peace and justice are not the same thing, and he’s fully aware of that. Law is also not justice, and he knows that too. He also knows that police procedure is ultimately put in place to protect him and his men—we’re just fortunate within the confines of these books that he’s more often using those rules to protect as many people as he can.
The sequence in front of the Watch House is a perfect example of how he uses said rules to his advantage and angles public perception. He puts unarmed officers on the doors, leaves the lights on bright, takes a cocoa break, refuses to arrest angry civilians spoiling for fights, makes sure that Doctor Lawn makes note of every injury and signs off on it. Because we’re lucky enough that most days, Sam Vimes is a relatively decent person who doesn’t want people to get needlessly hurt or killed, and believes that Watchmen are also civilians rather than some sort of “higher power.”
And it’s relevant that Vimes also uses said procedures as a method for fighting authoritarianism within his city; the Unmentionables are allergic to paperwork, and Vimes’s insistence that they adhere to it spooks them instantly. Sometimes abusive systems can be leveled against outright fascist ones to a net positive effect… It doesn’t make them righteous, but it is good to keep in mind.
The introduction of li’l Vetinari is too good, as is the knowledge that he saves Vimes’s life well ahead of knowing how important they’ll be to one another. But I am forced to wonder how Downey reacted when Vetinari became Patrician and/or if Havelock let him sweat it out initially, and dearly hope he did. The unbearable boarding school attitude deserves it, and Vetinari’s retribution against Downey for burning his book is weirdly… adorable? To me, at least. I mean, he could have done something far nastier.
We’ll get into more about Lady Meserole as we continue, of course, but I do think it’s interesting that both Vetinari and Vimes were raised by single women, and how that clearly shaped them both in very specific ways.
Asides and little thoughts:
- On Vimes’s experience with The Amorous Adventures of Molly Clapper: “[…] as a young man he had learned a lot from some of the illustrations, although a good deal of what he’d learned had turned out to be wrong.” Ah yes, continuing the tradition of young people learning the wrong things from generally available pornography.
- Bringing up the Young Men’s Pagan Association gave me visions of the Disc version of The Village People, and then had me trying to do a big arms version of a ‘P,’ which is much harder than the ‘C’ and therefore correct.
- Aw, I forgot that he makes the “swordfish” password joke. Which does make me wonder how many people would get that one these days—the Marx Brothers aren’t exactly in rotation the way they used to be.
There was a future. There had to be. He remembered it. But it only existed as that memory, and that was fragile as the reflection on a soap bubble and, maybe, just as easily popped.
His grey mustache could have been stolen from a walrus, or a bloodhound that had just been given some very bad news.
Vimes pulled out a sixpence. It shone in Nobby’s palm like a diamond in a chimney-sweep’s ear.
The night was black and so were you.
With those words hanging in the room all big and pink, Vimes stepped out into the evening air.
There was a bottle sticking out of the man’s pocket. He’d been drinking his defiance.
Ninety percent of most magic merely consists of knowing one extra fact.
Beyond the walls of the yard the real night closed in, the old night with its tendrils of fog and crawling shadows. He relaxed, and wore it like an overcoat.
Next week we’ll read up to:
Slowly, with the sounds of the street in his ears, Vimes slid into sleep.