The book features the coming of movable type to Ankh-Morpork, and the founding of the Discworld's first newspaper by William de Worde, as he invents investigative journalism with the help of his reporter Sacharissa Cripslock. The two investigate the charges of embezzlement and attempted murder against Havelock Vetinari, and help vindicate him.
The Ankh-Morpork City Watch characters also appear in this novel, but have limited roles and are seen mainly from de Worde's perspective which is not a flattering one. C.M.O.T. Dibbler also puts in an appearance.
In the novel the criminal group The New Firm (Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip) are employed by a group of so called "concerned citizens" to frame Lord Vetinari, in a conspiracy to get a new Patrician of Ankh-Morpork.
To accomplish this the New Firm find a shopkeeper who happens to be the spitting image of Vetinari and plan to use him as a double to make it seem as if Vetinari was trying to abscond from the city with a large amount of gold.
While the ploy works, it is touch-and-go for a minute or two--the New Firm's employers neglects to tell Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip that Vetinari "moves like a snake" and has been trained at the Assassins' Guild. They improvise, stabbing Vetinari's clerk, Drumknott, and pushing their Vetinari look-a-like into the hallway to "confess".
The only wrinkle is the escape of Wuffles, Vetinari's terrier, who tries but fails to get rid of the intruders by biting them at the ankle. The New Firm doesn't think much of this, but as Mr. Slant of the Lawyer's Guild is quick to point out, Ankh-Morpork has myriad ways to talk to anything, so the New Firm is forced to search for Wuffles.
When the Ankh-Morpork Times offers a AM$25 reward for Wuffles, hundreds of people show up to attempt to get the reward, and Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip quickly take advantage of the situation, and arriving disguised as Omnian clergy members.
They are about to kill William de Worde when the Times iconographer takes a picture using "Dark Light" exposure, which causes Mr. Pin to become aware of the large number of ghosts following him, waiting for him to die.
He runs from the scene, and threatens Mr. Slant in order to increase their fee, after which he goes to his employer's house, where he finds the Times reporter Sacharissa Cripslock.
Taking her with them, the New Firm go down to the Times office to wait for William to show up. A scuffle breaks out, which leads to a fire, from which Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip take refuge in the basement. When the basement begins to fill with hot lead as the printing press in the floor above melted, Mr. Pin takes advantage of his partner's trust and, under the guise of a plan, he shoots him and stands on his body in order to survive, claiming he "wasn't born to fry...".
When Mr. Pin finally gets out of the basement, out of habit more than anything else, he tries to strangle William, who accidentally runs him through with a paper spike.
Following this Mr. Pin ends up in the Desert of the Dead, where he meets Death and has his soul collected by the Death of Rats. Later, Death obliges Mr. Pin's wish to be reincarnated by sending him back to life as a potato, which is, ironically, deep fried and turned into chips.
William uses the gems on Mr. Pin's person to help the Dwarves buy a new press, and then confronts his father, Lord de Worde, at his mansion, almost getting captured. Otto Chriek, his vampire iconographer, saves him though, despite nearly falling victim to his species' bloodlust, and lets Lord de Worde go.
After the two return to the office, William learns of Lord Vetinari's reinstatement, and asks Sacharissa out. Afterwords, Mr. Tulip, reincarnated as a woodworm, comments on the "-ing good wood."
The opening line regarding rumour spreading like wild fire particularly since Ankh-Morpork had discovered fire insurance is a reference to the Colour of Magic when TwoFlower sells insurance to the owner of the Broken Drum only to have him set fire to the whole city in an attempt to collect on the policy. Later on when there is a fire, Pratchett points out the the Ankh-Morporkians were averse to Fire Brigades because they figured that if they were being paid to put out fires this would give them an incentive to start them. In the early days of Fire Brigades, this was in fact the case.
As in previous novels, Pratchett again plays with the term "Water Gate" and its associations when he centers action around this entry point to Ankh-Morpork. The Watergate scandal break-in at the offices of the Democratic National Committee in 1972 was traced back to the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Tape recordings proved Republican President Richard Nixon was involved in authorizing the break-in and led to his resignation before the House could impeach him. Later in this novel, Pratchett uses a similar line "'And now... this meeting of the Committee to Unelect the Patrician is declared closed.'" In addition, Gaspode says, "You can call me... Deep Bone." a play on Deep Throat who was the key informant in the Watergate Scandal. The Oblong Office of the Patrician in the real world is the US President's Oval Office in the White House.
Dibbler's remarks, "I could've done all right with the Fung Shooey, though." is a reference to Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese design philosophy where proper placement of objects like furniture and plants within a house influence the fortunes of the house owner.
The two villains, Pin and Tulip who work for an organization called the "New Firm" are typical of the criminal partnerships found throughout real life, movies and literature. The name "Old Firm" was used to describe the Kray Brothers' criminal organization of 1960s London and has become a generic term for a criminal organizations. Like Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, Pin and Tulip refer to each other as 'Mr" as do Mr. Croup and Mr Vandemar in Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (who also refer to themselves as the Old Firm). There are also many Pulp Fiction references in The Truth so the thugs might be partly patterned after Jules Winfield and Vincent Vega from that 1994 movie but in reality there are so many similar partnerships, from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to A Fish Called Wanda, that it is unlikely that any one pairing was the prototype.
Tulip's drug habit and experimentation is mentioned throughout the novel, a common trait of the type of villain he represents. Pratchett pokes macabre fun at the way druggies willing put any substance up their nose and in their veins that their dealer provides them with, as if their dealer's character is beyond reproach and the product is guaranteed to be what is claimed- a misguided notion that has been repeated in the real world over and over, most recently with the fentanyl crisis. When Tulip puts the pickle up his nose in the Biers bar, this is clearly a sexual reference.
Pratchett's line "Stop the press" just as the wagon rolls over William de Worde is a play on the line from the newspaper world when a special edition needs to be printed but is also a reference to stopping the runaway cart which contains a printing press from "pressing" William de Worde flat.
The dwarf Gunilla Goodmountain's name is Gutenberg translated from German to English. Johann Gutenberg invented movable type in the 1450s and printed the Gutenberg Bibles. The name of Caslong who is Goodmountain's assistant comes from the Caslon typeface named after its creator William Caslon. Boddony, another assistant is named after Bodoni another common typeface designed by Italian printer Giambattista Bodoni. Another dwarf is named Gowdie which is a reference to Frederic William Goudy, the American type designer who designed the Berkeley Old Style font as well as several Goudy fonts he named after himself.
The line "We are a bodyguard of lies, gentlemen." is a paraphrase of Winston Churchill's line "In war-time, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies", an appropriate quote given the title of the book.
Pratchett pokes fun at the recent real world changes in communication and the resultant problems - the internet etc. Dibbler's pamphlet says "M-a-k-e-$-$-$-I-n-n-Y-o-u-r-e-S-p-a-r-e-T-y-m--." which is a common refrain and style of Internet spam and other chain letter pyramid schemes. Pratchett seems to enjoy poking fun at the pyramid scheme concept. In Carpe Jugulum, Agnes says, "You mean vampirism is like... pyramid selling?" Similarly, the line "Have you heard of c-commerce?" (C commerce being Clack Commerce - ie. using the semaphore system to buy things) is reminiscent of e-commerce, or doing business electronically over the Internet.
Vetinari says, 'A thousand years ago we thought the world was a bowl,' 'Five hundred years ago we knew it was a globe. Today we know it is flat and round and carried through space on the back of a turtle.' ... 'Don't you wonder what shape it will turn out to be tomorrow?' This is both a reference to the way our thinking has evolved and to the movie Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jones' character says: "1500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the centre of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know... tomorrow."
Goodmountain says that the Bursar's words are not properly justified - meaning that the spaces aren't set evenly in the typeface but which the Bursar misinterprets to mean that Goodmountain does not believe he has properly rationalize his argument.
The line "...what would it do to the pie?" is a reference to the cooking in the previous sentence but also refers to printer pie, a term for jumbled-up type, which will be sorted for the next job or recast into new type.
Goodmountain says, "...Never use spades, Farmers use spades. But I call a shovel a shovel." a reference to the old adage in regard to being plain spoken - calling a spade a spade.
Foul Ole Ron says, "Gottle o' geer, gottle o' geer," which is a reference to the old ventriloquist routine. When they wanted to demonstrate how good they were they included the phrase "bottle of beer" as part of their act. Since it is impossible to pronounce the 'B' without moving your lips, the phrase comes out as "gottle of geer". For someone like Foul Ron who has trouble putting two coherent words together beyond "millennium hand and shrimp" this seems an appropriate line.
"Mr. Tulip used his head all the time, from a distance of about eight inches" - a reference to the standard head butting tactic of this type of streetwise thug.
Mr. Tulip shows his range of interests when he talks about painting (ones he would like to steal) Woman holding a Ferret by Leonard de Quirm is a reference to Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine. The painter Gogli is likely van Gogh but Mr. Tulip adds"If ----ing Gogli painted that, it was with his ----ing foot" a reference to Christie Brown, the Irish artist and author of My Left Foot. His comments about "[...] the P'gi Su dynasty" is a reference to Peggy Sue', the title of one of Buddy Holly's hits and a reminder of the previous novel ''Soul Music.' but also a play on the various Chinese Dynasties.
"the Tons acted like society lords" - The Tons are the muscle for the Troll gangs and Tongs are the Chinese Mafia in the real world but the name also conjures up "Ton" which was an eighteenth century Regency term for the upper levels of London Society.
Sacharissa Cripslock with the "nose alone ... capable of launching at least forty ships" is a reference to Helen of Troy with "the face that launched a thousand ships." Her name probably comes from the South African moth - Scythris sacharissa.
Foul Ole Ron as newspaper seller yells out "Hoinarylup!" "Squidaped-oyt!" and "Sheearna-pip!". The old time newspaper sellers yelled out the headlines of their paper in an almost incomprehensible fashion. However, as is typical Foul Ole Ron his words really do mean nothing - which doesn't stop the Ankh-Morpork Times from selling out.
The line from Mr. Pin, "'Do you know what they called a sausage-in-a-bun in Quirm?' is a play on the scene from Pulp Fiction when Vincent says, "And you know what they call a... a... a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?" Another Pulp Fiction reference later in the book is the line, 'A dog has got personality. Personality counts for a lot.' In Pulp Fiction, Jules says, "... a dog's got personality. Personality goes a long way."
The troll Rocky, the boxer who is forever getting knocked down, is an obvious reference to Sylvester Stallone's Rocky movies.
The headline for the newspaper "The Truth Shall Make Ye Free" is from the bible - John 8:32: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Sacharissa is dismissive of the motto saying, "I think its just a quote." Later on as things get more complex a type setting error changes this line to "The Truth Shall Make Ye Fret" and still later it becomes "The Truth Shall Make Ye Fred".
Throughout the book, Pratchett uses lines like, "If it's in the paper it must be true." to show the willingness of the populace to believe anything they see in print, no matter how ridiculous. A variation on the line is used by Virginia O'Hanlon in her letter to the New York Sun in 1897 regarding the existence of Santa Claus - a reference Pratchett used in The Hogfather. She says, "Papa says that if you see it in the Sun it is so."The original reference comes from Mark Twain in his March 31, 1873 speech called License of the Press. Twain says, "It has become a sarcastic proverb that a thing must be true if you saw it in a newspaper. That is the opinion intelligent people have of that lying vehicle in a nutshell. But the trouble is that the stupid people -- who constitute the grand overwhelming majority of this and all other nations -- do believe and are moulded and convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies." In his song Sunday Papers, English singer/songwriter Joe Jackson explores this theme; one line of which is: "They wouldn't print it if it wasn't true". In the present real world of spin doctors, "fake news" and news as entertainment, Pratchett shows this willingness to believe any garbage over and over at the breakfast table at Mrs. Arcanum's boarding house - all the mundane is accepted willingly and eagerly while the really important issues and facts are dismissed as trivial nonsense. Mrs. Arcanum's name comes from the Latin and means "secrets" or "mysteries" and is also used in Tarot so the contrast between the real facts that William is trying to present and the wooly "facts" that Mrs. Arcanum's boarders are interested in is obvious. Twain, Jackson and Pratchett were very prescient as to the role of the media in "informing" the citizenry.
Sacharissa says "'Oh? You've signed the pledge?" to Otto the vampire who has pledged not to drink blood and is a member of the Uberwald Tempreane Movement. This is a reference to the pledge not to drink alcohol that originated with the Women's Christian Temperance movement founded in the 1870s and is still used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other tee-totaling religious movements. The conversation that follows is a series of one liners and quips about the nature of vampirism and plays on "stake" vs "steak" that are typical of Pratchett's style. Later, when Sacharissa faints (the image of fainting virgins a common vampire theme) Otto almost has a relapse and the others rally round him to keep him on the wagon, again a reference to an AA or Christian Temperence meeting. Otto says that he is completely "beetotal" (not drinking blood) a reference to being teetotal (not drinking alcohol).
Pratchett pokes fun at all the various cliches and aspects about newspapers. The name Ankh-Morpork "Times" is simply a printer's error made when the dwarfs mix up the letters in "item". The obituary column is run by a zombie who is obviously dead. The newspaper photographer is a vampire who can't be exposed to light. The lost and found column ad recovers a watch that the owner has really just left in another jacket pocket. The letters to the paper are typical - everyone has an opinion about the most mundane subjects such as weather, no one agrees, there are complaints about rampant crime even if the evidence is to the contrary and there is some foreigner to blame for any woes.
Gardeners like Mr. Wintler and his unusual vegetables are a common theme in local community newspapers - particularly around fall fair time. The unstated sexual component adds the twist, especially when William de Worde is relieved to see that Mr. Wintler's latest offering is only a parsnip shaped like a long nose. In previous centuries before sexual organs could be written about plainly, authors used the nose as a euphemism for a penis. This was particularly popular in Russian literature after the publication of Lawrence Stern's novel, Tristam Shandy which used this idea. The most famous example of this is the short story by Nikolai Gogol, "The Nose". Later in the book, Sacharissa knees Mr. Tulip firmly in "the place that made a parsnip a very funny thing indeed." - often euphemistically called the "produce section".
Otto the Vampire photographer experiments with "dark light" a reference to "dark matter".
Vimes says to William de Worde "You write that little gossipy thing, right?" to which William de Worde replies, "Broadly, sir." This is a pun on broadsheet - another name for a newspaper, usually of a more serious nature than a tabloid which the Ankh-Morpork Times is. In contrast, its rival, the Ankh-Morport Inquirer is the kind of tabloid found at the checkout stands in supermarkets - an obvious reference to the National Enquirer right down to the style of the masthead. Its headline, "Woman gives birth to Cobra" is typical of the dubious facts printed in both these tabloid papers. A subsequent headline, "Elves stole my Husband!" is another shot at the National Enquirer which has used headlines, such as "Elvis alive and living in....." Pratchett played with the words Elvis/Elves previously in Soul Music. Another of their headlines refers to a "HALF MAN HALF MOTH?" This is based on the "sightings of a "Mothman" who was a man with wings seen by several people in Clendenin, West Virginia, in 1966, and reported in the Point Pleasant paper before being picked up nationally.
William de Worde says "[...] lies could run round the world before the truth could get its boots on." This saying is another attributed to Mark Twain, but it has been around in various forms since the time of Jonathan Swift in 1710 and is also supposedly an old Chinese proverb.
Twurp's Peerage is the directory of all the nobility of Ankh-Morpork and its satellites, describing their lineage and titles. It is a takeoff on Burke's Peerage. In colloquial English, "berk" and "twerp" are both pejorative names for an obnoxious, silly person. Berk was originally the cruder of the two deriving from the 1930s as a shortened version of Berkeley Hunt, the hunt based at Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire. In Cockney rhyming slang, hunt is a rhyme for cunt, giving the word its original slang meaning.
"King of the Golden River", in connection to Harry King, is a reference to the classic 1842 fairy tale written by John Ruskin only this king finds gold in the shit and piss of Ankh-Morpork. Pratchett himself says that "practically everything in the career of Harry King is fairly based on fact (except for the trolls)." There are many parallels between Harry's career and those of Dickens' characters in Victorian England and in many poor countries the trades continue to this day. Mudlarks were children (usually) who made a living scrounging in the sewage of the Thames (and other) rivers for valuables that had been lost. The rag and bone men collected unwanted household items and sold them to merchants. Linen rags were turned into paper. Bones were used for knife handles, toys and ornaments. Harry's poem, "Tinkle, Tinkle, little spoon, Wedding ring will follow soon" is a macabre version of the saccharine child's nursery rhyme "Twinkle Twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are". Night soil collectors sold the urine and excrement that they collected (and still do it some countries). Urine contains urea which degrades into ammonia and is used in a number of industries. Tanners use it to loosen hair on animal hides. Laundresses used it to whiten and clean clothes. It could be used to make saltpeter for gunpowder. It was used to set dyes in the fabric trade and also used as a teeth whitener mouth wash. Human excrement was used as a fertilizer for crops as is animal excrement. Animal excrement is used as a fuel source and to mix into adobe brick to make buildings. Dog droppings were used in the tanning industry to soften the leather.
The bar "Biers" is a take off on "Cheers" the bar in the American TV show. Biers is also a frame to place a coffin on (appropriate given the general undead state of most of the clientele at this bar) and is German for beer.
The line, 'An' then... then I'm gonna get medieval on his arse.' is a paraphrase of a Pulp Fiction quote.
Sisyphus from Greek mythology is the "hero who was condemned to push a rock up a hill and every time he got it to the top it rolled down again"
De Worde tells Sacharissa that she is "not (his) type." a reference to both his preference in women and also to the printing trade.
When robbing the church, Mr. Tulip says to the priest who interupst them, 'Have you still got the box it came in?' and asks if there is a second candlestick. This scene spoofs the Antiques Roadshow type television programs where people bring their old items to be identified and appraised by experts.
Pratchett says, that traditional minded dwarfs "took the view that what two dwarfs decided to do together was entirely their own business." This is a variation on the famous quote by Canadian Prime Minister (then Minister of Justice) Pierre Elliot Trudeau in regard to homosexuals that, "The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation." The line "bedrooms of the nation" was actually credited by Trudeau to Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Martin O'Malley.
Willie Hobson, who owns Hobson's multi-storey Livery Stable, clearly the equivalent of a multi-storey car park, is patterned after Thomas Hobson (1544-1630) a Cambridge stable manager and the origin of the saying "Hobson's choice" (ie the appearance of giving someone a choice, when actually there is only one option). People renting horses from him would be shown all available horses, but in the end they always had to take the one nearest the door, so that all his horses were exercised. In the Watergate Scandal, Deep Throat always met his contact in a multi-storey car park and they are a common meeting point in spy and gangster movies, so it is a natural spot for William de Worde to meet Deep Bone.
Deep Bone says, "Could be, could be, could very well be". This line is a parallel to the lines from the Monty Pythons "Candid Photography (Nudge Nudge Wink Wink)" sketch. Pratchett uses another reference to Monty Pythons when they are reviewing the "dogs" being delivered to the newspaper office and have to point out to the owners that some are cats and one is a parrot.
The town of Schüschien simple means Shoe Shine in German.
After the attack by Tulip and Pin, when Otto is feeling the need for blood, he sings his Temperance hymn, "Let me valk in sunshine. Living not in vein, Through thunderstom and dreadful night, ve vill carry on zer fight. The dwarfs all sing the hymn, "May I suck of Water Pure" to lend their support which Pratchett say, "...would have been as likely as cows singing "Let me be covered in rapturous gravy." In all these hymns, Pratchett plays with the Christian Temperance style of hymn and the issues of being a vampire - vein (vain), gravy (glory) from the blood of a roast, suck of water pure (drink of the blood of Christ).
The new Patrician Scrope is in the leather trade but it is clear this is the kinky sex bondage type of leather, not coats and jackets. One of the first acts that Scrope plans when he takes office is to pardon Vetinari. In the Round world Gerald Ford did this after he succeeded Richard Nixon.
The comment that "The Ephebian philosophers think that a hare can never outrun a tortoise, and they can prove it" is a reference to the Aesop fable "The tortoise and the Hare".
Deep Bone says, "Hark Hark the dogs do bark" The rest of the Roundworld verse is, "The beggars are coming to town." appropriate given that Deep Bone lives with the beggars under the bridge.
Sacharissa says, "They're undermining us everywhere" in regard to the Inquirer cutting into their business but also undermining their foundations with their shaking presses.
When William de Worde needs to meet Gaspode (Deep Bone) he tells Sachrissa that he is "going to see a dog about a man" a play on the line, "going to see a man about a dog" which is a euphemism for taking a piss.
When the New Firm is trapped in the basement of the newspaper building, Mr. Pin says, "I wasn't born to fry." a play on burning in the building but also on dying in the electric chair. Ultimately he does in fact fry, when he is reincarnated as a potato which is turned into chips.
Sacharissa suggests starting a magazine for women called the Ladies Home Companion a take off on The Ladies Home Journal. The other suggestions are obvious take offs on the likes of Playboy, Maxim, Woman, and various knitting, cooking and pet magazines.
Pratchett plays with the concept of reincarnation with the fates of Tulip and Pin. Tulip is condemned by Death to watch the deaths of his various victims for "eternity" and becomes a wood worm, one type of which is the "Death Watch beetle". Pin, who believes the "religious symbol potato" will save him from hell is reincarnated as a potato shaped like his face and is then fried.
Pin's walllet has the words, "Not A Very Nice Person At All",' engraved on the front, a reference to Jules' wallet in Pulp Fiction which reads "Bad Motherfucker".
When Sacharissa enters the Inquirer office waving the weapon and says, "Let us use your "ing" presses or I'll "ing" shoot your "ing" head "ing" off!'", this is reminiscent of Honey Bunny's screaming at the patrons in the cafe in Pulp Fiction: "Any of you fuckin' pricks move and I'll execute every motherfuckin' last one of ya!".
Death says "WHO KNOWS WHAT EVIL LURKS IN THE HEART OF MEN?" with its reply, "The Shadow Knows!" is a direct quote from the old radio show "The Shadow". Pratchett is likely juxtaposing Death's use of this line and its source in the radio show with Psalm 23 "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil." The Shadow of Death is also a painting by the 19th century artist William Holman Hunt, foreshadowing Christ's death on the cross.
The line, 'Every day, in every vay, ve get better and better.' comes from one of the first positive-thinking mantras, coined by Emile Coue (1857-1926), French psychotherapist and pharmacist. Coue's study of hypnotism convinced him that auto-suggestion could cure anything but actual results showed no improvement. The line has come to represent trite and simplistic solutions to complex problems and is parodied in countless literature and film.
Goodmountain says in regard to getting the printing press from the Inquirer, "Let's just do it" a reference to Nike's famous slogan "Just do it!"
'Have you locked him up,' said Sacharissa suspiciously, 'in a deep cell, and made him wear a mask all the time [...]?" This line in regard to Charlie, the Patrician's double is a reference to Alexandre Dumas' 1846 novel The Man in the Iron Mask.
When William de Worde meets with the civic leaders, Mr. Slant says that "Mr. Scrope has sent a note...It appears he is ill". William's response is to say, "Was it signed by his mother." A reference to schools requiring a note for absence signed by parent or guardian so that the student couldn't just be faking it (which obviously Mr. Scrope is doing).
William de Worde thinks to himself, "You've got to move with the Times" (capitalized as a reference to both time and his newspaper.