The Dirk Gently books: Douglas Adams's supernatural mystery novels
Detective Dirk Gently saves the world in these brilliant British novels
It's been over twenty years since I first read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. There are very few books that interest me just as much now as they did twenty years ago. In fact, the only ones I can think of are Adams's other novels and the best of Tom Holt's work (I hadn't discovered Terry Pratchett back then). Even among those books, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is the one I go back to most often, which is why I consider it my favorite novel of all time.
During my summer of study in Europe, I went to an English language bookstore in Munich, desperate for something new to read; my roommate recommended Douglas Adams, so I purchased the first Dirk Gently novel and the sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I read both books twice that summer, and I honestly couldn't tell you how many times I've read the books or listened to them over the years. I was lucky enough to get audio versions of the novels narrated by Adams, and hearing him read his work cemented my love of the books and their oddly charming characters.
Read on for quotes, a quiz, character descriptions, book recommendations and more!
The print classic, sure to become dog-eared from repeated readings.
The title character
It's interesting to note that Dirk Gently doesn't take the stage in his own book until Chapter Thirteen, though he's introduced in Chapter Six via the recollections of another character. But even those reflections paint a clear and vivid picture; there's no question why the first book bears Dirk's name.
Dirk is undeniably clever, evidenced by the way he turns a phrase ("If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands."); the references he inserts in conversation (most notably a detailed one about Schrodinger's Cat); and by the way his mind works as he takes the extreme and seemingly unrelated events of the book and gradually uncovers the connections between them to solve the crime. He's eccentric in his dress, favoring a red, flat-brimmed hat and a flappy leather coat, so he's an unusual sight as far as detectives go. His typical clients are elderly ladies who rarely pay his outlandish bills, which contain line items such as "Struggling on in the face of draining skepticism from client, drinks -- three hundred and twenty-seven pounds, fifty." He's even a bit psychic, although he denies it and is pained by the thought of it: such a talent goes against his desire for logic and order. And yet, he has no problem accepting the supernatural as reality when such an explanation fits the facts at hand. In short, he's a colorful and very human individual, and one whose company I adore.
Rule one in housebreaking... Never answer the telephone when you're in the middle of a job. Who are you supposed to be, for heaven's sake?— Dirk Gently
The holistic detective agency
Dirk is unique in his detection methods: as a firm believer in the interconnectedness of all things, he holds that all events are connected in some way, much like the fabled flapping of butterfly wings in China can affect the path of an Atlantic hurricane. He believes that if he could interrogate a table leg in a way that made sense to him and to it, it would be able to reveal some tiny but important detail related to the case at hand. From a practical standpoint, this mindset typically means only that his clients get some rather strange invoices; most notably, one client gets billed for a trip to the Bahamas because "I have plotted and triangulated the vectors of the interconnectedness of all things and traced them to a beach in Bermuda which it is therefore necessary for me to visit from time to time in the course of my investigations." Luckily, however, on some occasions, Dirk's philosophy leads him down a path to unexpected and successful results.
If you go to an acupuncturist with toothache he sticks a needle instead into your thigh. Do you know why he does that, Mrs Rawlinson? No, neither do I, Mrs Rawlinson, but we intend to find out.— Dirk Gently
The supporting cast of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
While other characters pale a bit in comparison to Dirk Gently, they're still an entertaining bunch. There's Richard, a computer programmer and former school chum of Dirk's, whom Dirk describes as "Tall and absurdly thin. And good-natured. A bit like a preying mantis that doesn't prey.... " Richard's girlfriend Susan is a cellist with a sharp wit; as Richard observes, "For someone who always looked so neat and sweet and delicate she packed a hell of a temper." Her brother, Gordon Way, happens to be Richard's employer; Gordon is obsessed with wealth, success, new technology and constant contact. He loves to talk to anyone who will listen, although he'll settle for talking to answering machines when people aren't available. And then there's Reg, Richard's one-time college tutor. Reg is a pleasant if forgetful old man and a lover of conjuring tricks. He also has a secret -- a very big secret that Dirk will eventually need to uncover in order to save mankind.
Which character is your favorite?
Considering that the copyright date of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is 1987, the story contains a surprising amount of technology, probably due to Douglas Adams's documented fascination with computers. Richard and his boss both have car phones, somewhat of a rarity at that time. Richard's home workroom is littered with computers and assorted peripherals, and we hear detailed descriptions of the different programs he's created. The highlights include an interesting program bought by the Pentagon (you tell it the situation and the action you want to take, and it gives you iron-clad arguments to support your decision) and a personal project where Richard has mapped out his staircase in 3-D in order to find a set of moves that will dislodge the sofa currently stuck there. We also see quite a few telephone answering machines, since they -- like Richard's sofa -- have an important place in the interconnectedness of all things.
My Dirk Gently Quiz
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The sequel, wherein Dirk returns for another round of holistic mayhem. In this book, Thor, the god of thunder, is creating havoc, and it's up to Dirk to set things right.
While I didn't like this book as much as the original, I still enjoyed it a lot and definitely recommend it.
The BBC TV series
Given the enduring love of Adams fans for his work, it's not surprising that the BBC introduced a comedy-drama series based on Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. However, it wasn't much of a success and only a few episodes made it to air before the show was canceled. Since it was recently released on DVD, I've finally gotten to see the pilot. Within the first few minutes, I could see why it was canceled; I found it highly disappointing, and I'm mainly including it in the interest of being thorough.
The show deviated wildly from the book, even to the point of changing the essence of all the characters. Dirk is now an unabashed con man, going so far as to bilk Richard out of a substantial amount of money (under the influence of hypnosis, no less) to fund a trip to a five-star resort in the Bahamas. Dirk is highly unlikable in the series; he's more of a caricature of the novel character than a true reflection of Adams's work. Likewise, Richard has been transformed into an unemployed, slow-witted sidekick for Dirk -- a warm body for Dirk to use, with no clear redeeming qualities. Susan is now a doctor, and while she's still strong-willed, in the series, it comes across as harsh and not at all endearing. Gordon Way (no longer Susan's brother) fares best of the book's characters; rather than the self-absorbed, chatty millionaire, he's now a hopeless romantic determined to win back his college sweetheart (Susan). I honestly wasn't sure why his character was included at all, since he shares a name with the book's character but virtually nothing else.
On the off chance that you're still interested in seeing the show, here are a few links, including episode guides and a video interview with star Stephen Mangan, who plays Dirk.
I hope you've enjoyed learning about Douglas Adams's humorous detective novels Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. I hope you'll pick up a copy of one of these books and fall in the love with Dirk the way I have. Happy reading!
© 2010 C A Chancellor