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The Dirk Gently books: Douglas Adams's supernatural mystery novels

Updated on February 3, 2015
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (cover art)
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (cover art) | Source

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!

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

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?

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The technology

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 Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

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

Discuss Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and Douglas Adams

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    • profile image

      getupandgrow 3 years ago

      Love this lens. There can never be too much of anything by Douglas Adams, anywhere.

    • TransplantedSoul profile image

      TransplantedSoul 3 years ago

      Douglas Adams was a character!

    • DreyaB profile image

      DreyaB 4 years ago from France

      I love Dirk Gently and I love Douglas Adams - a massive fan. Also being based in the UK at the time I saw the series with Stephen Mangan, though based on the books rather than copying them I did actually really like it and I think Stephen played the part quite well - don't know who else I would have chosen. :0)

    • CuAllaidh profile image

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      @Commandrix: If you liked Hitchhikers you'll like Dirk!

    • CuAllaidh profile image

      Jeff Johnston 4 years ago from Alberta Canada

      I prefer long dark tea time of the soul to DGHDA, but Dirk is great.

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 5 years ago

      I've not yet read this book by Douglas Adams. Will have to put it on the reading list, or get the audio version for a road trip.

    • Commandrix profile image

      Heidi 5 years ago from Benson, IL

      Sounds like a fun book. I've only read the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" series from Douglas Adams, but next time I get to a library I might check this one out.

    • fefe42 profile image

      fefe42 5 years ago

      I like Hitchhiker's Guide and have been wanting to read more books by Douglas Adams... guess I should start with this one. Squid Angel Blessed!

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 6 years ago from US/TN

      @anonymous: [ SPOILER ALERT -- don't read if you don't want key details of the plot! ] This one took me a while to figure out, because it isn't terribly well explained. But here's the way I understand it. The ghost was in Reg, and at the Coleridge dinner, the ghost passed to Richard. And later that evening the ghost got into Michael. Since Coleridge never wrote the poem, the dinner never happened and there was no opportunity for the ghost to get into Michael via Richard. (Also, if Richard hadn't forgotten to pick up Susan for the dinner, she never would have called Michael in the first place.) Preventing the formal dinner stopped all the social interactions of that night from happening and eliminated the opportunity for the ghost to discover Michael.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      How exactly did Dirk save mankind? He stopped Coleridge from doing the peom, but so what? What am I missing?

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 6 years ago from US/TN

      @Tempus: I've read about the BBC version and I'm SO curious! I can't wait until it's available here in the U.S. Thanks for stopping by!

    • khael profile image

      khael 6 years ago

      Looks like this is one Douglas Adams book I'll need to hunt down.

    • profile image

      Tempus 6 years ago

      The BBC have just made an adaptation of the book and aired it over Christmas here in the U.K. It's not as good as the original but there's definitely enough mileage in their version to produce The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul', I hope! Great Lens - Thanks.

    • ArdenBaird LM profile image

      ArdenBaird LM 6 years ago

      It's been a long time since I read this book. Since I did rather badly on the quiz, I think it's time for another read. BTW thanks for blessing my Star Trek Themed Drinks lens.

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 6 years ago from US/TN

      @KarenHC: You're welcome! Thanks for taking the quiz! That's a good score -- my dad has read the book twice and still only got 2 or 3 right. He had me worried that I'd made it too hard. :-)

    • KarenHC profile image

      Karen 6 years ago from U.S.

      This book looks like something I'd really enjoy. It sounds quirky and unusual and fun :-) BTW I just took the quiz without knowing anything and got 50% correct :-) (thanks for your comment on one of my lenses!)

    • Board-Game-Brooke profile image

      C A Chancellor 6 years ago from US/TN

      @BetsiGoutal1: Wow! That's the best praise I could hope to get. Thanks so much -- you just made my evening. :-)

    • BetsiGoutal1 profile image

      BetsiGoutal1 6 years ago

      I remember loving this book when I first read it, but I must admit it's been years. You've inspired me to reread it!