If only more cops were like Sam Vimes

I was reading this article ranking fictional cops, and I was wondering why, because I hadn’t heard of most of them, and then I hit the testimonial to Sam Vimes. Yes, this is why it was worth reading.

Sam Vimes believes that his role is to protect the powerless from the powerful, and to annoy rich people. And he does those things consistently, and works hard to keep the Ankh-Morpork police force more or less in line with that role. He’s not perfect, but we’re not supposed to think he can be, because Terry Pratchett is too awesome for that.

Sam motherfucking Vimes though. When the revolution came, he was on the barricades. Awesomely, through the power of time travel, HE WAS ON THE BARRICADES TWICE. Sam Vimes, fresh-faced young copper, joins an uprising as a young man, SEES THE REVOLUTION FAIL and then, as an older man thrown back into that era through time travel he JOINS THE REVOLUTION A SECOND TIME EVEN THOUGH HE KNOWS IT FAILED AND HELPS TO MAKE SURE IT SUCCEEDS. He BEATS UP A GOVERNMENTAL TORTURER AND BURNS DOWN THE HEADQUARTERS OF THE SECRET POLICE. He once showed up where two armies were squaring off to go to war and ARRESTED BOTH ARMIES FOR CONSPIRACY TO CAUSE A BREACH OF THE PEACE. SAM. VIMES.

Unfortunately, this had to come from a fantasy novel, because a cop who is not a thug in the service of the rich and powerful, and who has a deep moral commitment to protecting the poor and underprivileged, is a creature that can only exist in a world that is flat and resting on the backs of elephants riding a flying turtle.


  1. killyosaur says

    There’s a reason the Night’s Watch and City Watch novels are my favorites of the Discworld series, Sam Vimes is part of it (and Jingo was a great freaking novel).

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    damn time travel always the ultimate mcGufffin that is very Shroedinger, both cause and solution to problem simultaneously

  3. davidc1 says

    Well i have seen video of cops putting their lives on the line to rescue people ,not many to be sure .
    There was a documentary on RT a bit back ,they reckon that more time is spent in training cops to use their weapons than how to relate to people ,or something like that.

  4. says

    Whereas Vimes and the Deadwood guy are the only two I haven’t heard of. I can vouch for the writer’s taste in the other three, even if William Murdoch is a little too Catholic for my tastes at times, though usually not in the worst ways.

  5. rq says

    There’s a few good cops missing from that list, Peter Grant for one, but it’s also missing a good dose of diversity. I refuse to believe there are no good women cops out there, for one. Sadly, though, I can’t seem to name any off the top of my head.

  6. mikehuben says

    Many other characters in the Discworld novels work from the same ideas, especially the witches. One of the reasons why I love the series so much, and have re-read it several times.

  7. says

    Simon Illyan, though he’s an imperialist and the head of state security, is a pretty good cop – though his allegiance is to the aristocracy first and everyone else by coincidence. Hmmmm maybe not such a good cop after all.

  8. Alverant says

    *yawn* In Discworld the powerful are able to protect themselves. Vimes is there to balance the scales so everyone is treated equally. There’s also a big difference between “annoying rich people” and showing outright favoritism against the powerless. Annoying people isn’t against the law, unless you live in a society where the powerful get to pick and choose which laws get enforced.

  9. says

    rq @8

    I haven’t watched Law & Order: SVU in years but the few that I did see Olivia Benson seemed like a good cop. Unfortunately I don’t know enough about Cagney & Lacey to say whether they were or not.

    However, I do know enough about Brooklyn Nine-Nine to put the entire main credits cast on the list as good cops (Hitchcock and Scully aren’t).

  10. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says


    You’re right. Apologies for the oversight.

  11. Pierre Le Fou says

    That’s a funny coincidence. I’ve been reading this blog for what, 10, 15 years (?), very rarely commenting, and it just happens that the book I’m reading these days is “Guards! Guards!” (the first book where Sam Vines appears). I’ll try to promptly forget what I just read about him being involved in a revolution; that will be in a future book I expect. Right now he’s fighting a dragon.

  12. anbheal says

    Serpico was a real person. He took down half the NYC vice squad, at incredible risk to his life.
    And never worked again, if I recall. Cops don’t appreciate the disinfectant of sunlight.

    And when Boston adopted community policing, it really worked amazingly well for twenty years, until assholes decided that it was too decent to blacks and Latinos. I remember when the two Gay Liaison beat cops showed up in the South End, one an old pompadoured stereotype, Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilley, funny as fuck, always loved to stop and chat, the other a young chiseled slice of beefcake on a huge quarterhorse (or “kwoddah”, as they pronounced it in the neighborhood), and I swear the gestalt, as evening bled out into night, was completely transformed. The gay men felt they were protected as they walked their dogs or went to the store, the hoodlums felt they no longer would get a wink and a snicker from the fat Irish cops on motorcycles if they smacked a queer around, and there was a genuine sense that the cops were here to protect us, not to catch us doing something wrong. It was nice.

  13. goaded says

    @20 It’s a million to one chance it will turn out OK.

    pterry died too soon. :(

    There was a brief period where his books felt a bit too formulaic, but I got over it. RIP.

  14. jacksprocket says

    Terry Pratchett is archetypically English of 1950/60s vintage, and well keyed in to how we think things ought to be, even when they aren’t. Vimes is the ideal English copper, a curry cooked from Dixon of Dock Green, Inspector Barlow of Z Cars, Sam Spade, and Old Bill. Though much as I like and respect his sardonic views of England (aka Ankh Morpork), I’m a bit troubled by the transformation of Lord Vetinari from a rather vicious autocrat to a Platonic/ renaissance Enlightened Dictator.

  15. grasshopper says

    I think quantum physics would have gone down a different path if Schrodinger had put his cat in a box made from sapient pear-wood.

  16. Pierce R. Butler says

    It greatly diminished my admiration of Terry Pratchett when I figured out that virtually all of his authority figures were essentially benign.

    Satirists shouldn’t pull their punches so systematically – especially during long decades of brutal venality.

    But I’m still saving a couple of D’world novels for some special occasion.

  17. says

    I’ve been in law enforcement for thirty nine years now. I accepted early that I was in a position which must accept all kinds of comments from all kinds of people. Including those who are expressing more emotion than fact. I am also the board chairman at a non-profit domestic violence, sexual assault, and child advocacy center. I am occasionally active with the local democrats and a progressive. I’m an adjunct instructor at a community college and half my students are Hispanics, some were in DACA, and a couple were foreign nationals of African descent.

    I enjoy your comments in general but you have a “thing” against police that bears comparisons to racism. I don’t understand where this obvious short-coming appears from someone who normally seems so rational.

  18. says

    Randolph Grant @26

    Do you run roughshod over the blue wall of silence?

    Do you let your police union representatives know of your displeasure when police unions protect bad cops?

    Do you keep an eye out for bigotry in your comrades and let them know when they’re full of shit?

    Do you speak out when abusive and killer cops lose their jobs with one force only to be hired by another?

    I enjoy your comments in general but you have a “thing” against police that bears comparisons to racism.

    Do it fucking doesn’t.

  19. Artor says

    Randolph Grant @ 26:
    It’s good that you work against domestic violence and such. But assuming you work on a force larger than a handful of officers, chances are one of your fellows is a lawbreaker, and you know about it. Have you ever turned in a fellow for planting evidence> Roughing up a suspect? Fudging evidence on a report? Intimidating women to get his jollies? If not, then I cordially invite you and your egregious comparisons to racism, to take a long walk off a short pier. The Blue Klux Klan is the largest and most dangerous gang in the country. Law abiding citizens fear interacting with them, and rightly. Without knowing you personally, we have to assume you are another murdering thug like so many of your ilk.

  20. says

    You have it wrong. Extreme right conservative Christians believe the earth is flat and wouldn’t tolerate a cop who serves the poor and disadvantaged.

  21. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    It seems appropriate to add my favorite quote here.

    It always embarrassed Samuel Vimes when civilians tried to speak to him in what they thought was “policeman.” If it came to that, he hated thinking of them as civilians. What was a policeman, if not a civilian with a uniform and a badge? But they tended to use the term these days as a way of describing people who were not policemen. It was a dangerous habit: once policemen stopped being civilians the only other thing they could be was soldiers.

    – Terry Pratchett, Snuff

  22. rayceeya says

    RIP Mr. Pratchett.
    As an aside, if only we had a leader like Lord Ventanarri.

    “And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based. – Vetinari, Going Postal”

    That’s a good one for every open carry, “Hitler had some good ideas”, moron out there who abuses his free speech and then cries foul when the rest of us call them out on it.

  23. Matt Cramp says

    It greatly diminished my admiration of Terry Pratchett when I figured out that virtually all of his authority figures were essentially benign.

    Satirists shouldn’t pull their punches so systematically – especially during long decades of brutal venality.

    It’s satire, but it’s also fantasy. There is a line about it being telling what you do and don’t allow in your fantasy story, and I think it’s probably relevant here: Pratchett wanted to tell stories about a moment in history where generally benign people got to be in charge.

    Although now I think about who the antagonists of the Discworld books are, they’re typically nobility. There’s been a few dangerous assassins, one captain of industry, a couple of gods/magical forces, and it’s unclear what exactly the Auditors count as, but especially as Vetinari mellowed, the threats almost always came from the existing Ankh-Morpork power structure which Vetinari tolerated.

  24. Jack Krebs says

    Yea for Pratchett. I just re-read Small Gods, which is fabulous, and a re-read of Men at Arms is next.

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    Matt Cramp @ # 37: Pratchett wanted to tell stories about a moment in history where generally benign people got to be in charge.

    He did well to work in the fantasy genre, then.

  26. gattomonstrosis says

    Sam Vimes is the cop (and granny Weatherwax the witch) that you want in your corner when things go south, the people you can trust to throw yourself on their mercy, so long as you really really deserve that mercy.
    Vimes isn’t perfect, he’s a combination of Columbo and Dirty Harry, he overlooks the larceny of Nobby Nobbs and Fred Colons ‘perks’ when he would never stand for Lord Rust doing the same, because Rust is Them and Nobby and Fred are Us and Vimes is firmly on the side of Us even when he becomes one of Them and begins making the difference he always dreamed of making if he ever had the power to do it, he’s not meant to be perfect, you don’t get perfect options in a real world, real worlds are messy and only ever give you varying degrees of the smelly end of the stick, he’s just doing the best he can to do the right thing for people who have no one but him between them and a meatgrinder, and hang the fallout.

  27. says

    The other thing is, of course, that Sam Vimes had to come to the point where he could do all these things the hard way. He spent years as an alcoholic mess, leader of a disregarded, ignored force of guards who were destroyed by the previous administration and regarded as a joke in the current one. He only got out of that situation by sheer luck and a fortuitous chain of circumstances (described in “Guards! Guards!”).

    He’s also one of the richest men in the city (by marriage) who grew up in poverty. This is at least part of the reason he delights in annoying the rich and powerful as Commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – because he actually believes the law applies to everyone, and that, for example, shooting a servant with a bow and arrow because they failed to put your shoes out the right way around, counts as murder. It’s one of the things I appreciated about Pterry’s almost ferocious sense of justice, as expressed through Vimes – the way he articulated things like “if you live in a slum tenement, you’re almost automatically regarded as a criminal; meanwhile if you OWN a bunch of slum tenements, you’re a respectable member of society” as being actual *problems*. The way he pointed out that if you’re poor, anything you do can be a crime – even breathing. Whereas if you’re rich, you don’t commit crimes. You perpetrate eccentricities, or if you’re rich enough, they’re amusing peccadilloes. That “privilege” basically translates to “private law”.

    While Vimes turns a blind eye toward Nobby and Colon’s activities, he also doesn’t encourage them. He’s just smart enough to realise their kinds of low-level corrupt policing are the sort of tide he’s not going to be able to turn in a hurry. It’s also worth noting: the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is NOT a perfect police force. There’s plenty of evidence that the individual officers are sexist and speciesist in the sorts of low-level generalist ways that a lot of people in the aspirational working class are (and yeah, “police officer” in most Western and Western-influenced cultures is an aspirational working-class role, which means it’s full of the sort of people who have grown up in the working-class “crab bucket” mentality, where everyone makes sure that nobody gets too far above their neighbours). Yeah, they make specific exceptions for their mates in the force (and they don’t do anything too particular when the officers are looking) but you have to prove your worth, so there’s a lot of hazing and so on. But the difference is: they aspire to being better – and that aspiration is conveyed from the top, and becomes an expectation of the people at the lower levels.