Novel November

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

by Douglas Adams

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Admas

Douglas Adams was one of the funniest men alive. I miss him every time I reread one of his books. Going through this book again made me sad to think of how much we lost when Adams left us. But then those blues brightened and I basked in the hilarity and inventiveness of this novel.

Dirk Gently's exists because Adams took a break from the Hitchhiker's universe to revamp an old Doctor Who script of his that was never produced. It shoots for a different kind of funny than everyone's favorite five-volume trilogy. As usual, the characters mostly travel on a steady conveyor belt through the plot and react to things rather than making actual decisions. (As it turns out, even the decisions they do make aren't really theirs, but I'm dancing dangerously close to a spoiler here, so look at that monkey. Whew, close.) But the jokes are more grounded in reality, at least for a while, and the story is actually leading from page one to a logical, if not weird, conclusion. While most of the Hitchhiker books feel like the author is just unrolling one joke after another till he runs out the page count (in fact, Adams was actually interrupted by his agent before he could properly finish the first book because he was way past deadline), Dirk Gently's has a plot, climax, and a for real denouement. And it's a bit dry. The first half focuses mainly on a boring gathering of boring old college professors. One prof demonstrates a neat conjuring trick to amuse a bored little girl who had been brought along by her boring father. Then a horse shows up in the professor's bathroom, a software tycoon dies, and our protagonist climbs through his girlfriend's window to retrieve an answering machine tape. Remember those?

Sounds like a random assortment of events, doesn't it? For almost the entirety of the book, ends miss ends, and you seriously have no idea what's going on. But you're laughing, having a good time, and you trust Adams, because he's not only funny, he's a fine writer. Even if you've never performed comedy or giving a public speech, you read his words like a seasoned raconteur. His sentences have the perfect timing built right in. Eventually, the fractured story does resolve into a whole. It just takes a while. Also, it takes a while for the titular character to show up.

Dirk himself doesn't appear until almost a hundred pages into the novel. We get some background on him, but he doesn't speak till page ninety, and that's over the phone. When we finally meet him face to face, it's in the run-down office of his detective agency where he fires his secretary for not working for free, tries to convince an old lady to pay for a trip to the Bahamas where he searched in drunken vain to find her missing cat, and states that all things and events are completely interconnected. He happens to be right. Everything you've read so far has been building up to a big reveal. The things you think are trivial are actually of the utmost importance.

Dirk is the best character in the book, which is probably why it's named after him. He may be a blowhard, a trickster, and a skinflint, but he sees there are problems where others see nothing at all. He looks for explanations while everyone else chases red herrings. And when he saves the world, he quite reasonably doesn't charge for the service.

This is a fantastic book, but it can leave you scratching your noggin if you don't come into it with some foreknowledge. So do a quick bit of homework before you crack open the cover. Read “Kubla Kahn” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge wrote it one day after an opium dream but was interrupted by a visitor before he could finish the poem. The poem features heavily in this novel, and once you're familiar with it, you'll get a little shock when it is read by one of the boring old professors. I had never heard of the poem when I first read this book in junior high. So prepare yourself. Then grab a copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and have fun.

I wanted to talk a bit here at the end about a discovery I made on this new reading. I only see it because a couple years ago I read a biography of Douglas Adams. What I discovered is that this book is stuffed with Adams' obsessions. Endangered species, computer equipment and software, music, the Beatles and Bach. He apparently did that sort of thing all the time. People he knew would show as minor characters, and things he loved became plot points. He could go on and on for hours about Apple computers or The Beatles, but here he manages to reign himself in and use his expert knowledge to serve the story rather than gush on incessantly. He hated the act of writing, but he loved everything he wrote about. I miss him. I'll never be able to wonder what he's up to or if he's working on a new book, but he left behind seven great and funny novels. So long, and thanks for all the laughter.

old timey typewriter

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