Book review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Yes, you might have noticed that I haven’t been concentrating on new publications, and this is for two reasons. One is that I haven’t been reading very much in the way of new publications, and the second is, I’m recommending books that I think people should read ;-)

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective AgencyDouglas Adams is best known for the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, which is very entertaining but has several weak spots. He hit his stride later on, though, and the best remains Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Set in more-or-less contemporary times, DGHDA is a mystery, ghost story, and quirky science fiction book all together; for those that think science fiction requires spaceships, aliens, and time travel, this isn’t necessarily so. Sometimes it’s simply an expansion of our mundane world and the qualities within, and anyone who dislikes Star Trek (I cannot find fault with that) won’t find that this book compares in any way.

Most distinctly, Adams took the time to craft his plot meticulously. This is not a draft dashed off to make some publisher’s deadline, but the culmination of lots of effort. Anyone who noticed the somewhat haphazard progression of the first Hitchhiker’s Guide book will not see the same here, and in fact, it is definitely worth reading DGHDA twice to see exactly how Adams included the details and how they all come together. Many mystery writers provide clues to the solution by dropping a little too much detail in areas normally left bare; Adams is typically much more subtle, but even when the reader catches them, such details leave the reader completely flummoxed as to their meaning. In essence, he agrees to give all the clues, confident that it will do little good. It is only at the end that they converge in a remarkable fashion that few writers could pull off or would even attempt to, and subsequent readings will almost certainly reveal quite a bit that he passed off casually, which had much more bearing on the plot than it seemed.

Adams displays a penchant for eccentric personalities, so naturally this describes his protagonist, Dirk Gently. Gently runs a “holistic” detective agency (I regret spoiling the title in this way,) specializing in solving his cases not by dealing with the immediate details of the case, but with their “fundamental interconnectedness” with the universe as a whole – this might involve attempting to find an elderly client’s missing cat by vacationing in the Bahamas. Gently is revealed quickly as a con-artist, which is perhaps the most lucrative profession of those who have a gift for intuition and human nature. Or perhaps not. He appears abruptly on the scene from the college past of Richard MacDuff, a quintessentially a-social computer programmer who finds his boss inexplicably murdered. The murder does indeed get solved, but in the grand scheme of things this is entirely incidental, overshadowed almost completely by something quite bizarre.

The reader may find themselves assisted by some knowledge of the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, since Adams built portions of the story around these. It is not necessary, however, and it is highly doubtful that such knowledge would contribute to solving the mystery before the denouement – I have yet to see the author that can craft a tale this unique. We are not treated to a series of events likely to occur in any timeline, much less all of them, and we are not embroiled in the emotions and motivations of the characters. Instead, Adams provides a concatenation of details that seem completely haphazard, which makes it much more interesting to see them tie together so distinctly in the end. The science fiction aspect makes it permissible to use a plotline that would otherwise seem contrived, yet Adams does a great job with blending this into both history and folklore. Every aspect of this book interacts as part of a whole, homage perhaps that the holistic detective agency is not quite so contrived after all.

One of the reasons that I feature this book here is that Adams has subtly included some key aspects of critical thinking within, from Gently’s disastrously successful college scam to later seizing upon key factors in eyewitness accounts. However, I found the passage regarding hypnosis to depart from this jarringly, in that it is portrayed in a “common knowledge” manner rather than with accuracy. Too much of the book revolves around this for it to be easily overlooked, but since the remainder is both solid and capable of holding the reader’s attention, I find myself willing to overlook it. Some fiction authors are fond of taking common beliefs, folklore, and legends and crafting their story around the idea that such things are accurate; Terry Pratchett is notorious for it. Adams does a marvelous job of incorporating “what everyone knows” into his story, extrapolating it further back than most people would consider. In doing so, the reader is left to discover (unless they’ve been clued in by reading book reviews) that one poor individual is not likely to obtain their happy ending. But, for the good of the many…

Adams’ interest in critical thinking, expressed in interviews and articles, even shows in largely disposable passages of the book, where a casual conversation between characters causes one to explain the software that made his employer famous, a program called Reason:

“Well, Gordon’s great insight was to design a program which allowed you to specify in advance what decision you wished it to reach, and only then to give it all the facts.The program’s task, which it was able to accomplish with consummate ease, was simply to construct a plausible series of logical-sounding steps to connect the premises with the conclusion.

“And I have to say that it worked brilliantly. Gordon was able to buy himself a Porsche almost immediately despite being completely broke and a hopeless driver. Even his bank manager was unable to find fault with his reasoning. Even when Gordon wrote it off [totaled it] three weeks later.”

We later find that all rights and developmental notes of the software were purchased in toto by the US Military; they could perhaps have saved themselves a lot of money by hiring theologians instead.

There also the matter of Electric Monks. Adams is exactly the kind of writer who would slip in something meaningful about their coincidental appearance, perhaps implying that this is not coincidental after all. To say more would be to give away too much within the book, something that I have been endeavoring not to do (in case this wasn’t obvious,) so I leave it to the reader to consider this themselves. The idea was even toyed with in “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” so I suspect there might be a very subtle message in there, with the potential of an evolution joke, especially if you refer to them as “Monk-E’s.”

As a note unrelated to the story, it can be surmised that Adams wrote this in close proximity to the other book of his that I reviewed, since several casual aspects can be seen in both. Adams’ increased interest in the workings of science and nature peek in slyly, as does a dodo. It provides an interesting insight into the way that a story develops from life experience, though I suspect anyone would be hard-pressed to predict that such experiences would lead to this. Moreover, it leaves one wondering what else might have occurred in his life which inspired the portions of this book not related to his world travels and encounters with endangered species, an almost disturbing thought in itself.

I feel obligated to say that his follow-up to this book, The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul (not a sequel so much as another story with some of the same characters,) does not half measure up to the wonderful planning and execution of DGHDA. The unfortunate thing about writing works of insight and interest is that you raise the bar on yourself. I consider Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to be the pinnacle of Douglas Adams’ small collection of books, both meticulous and clever, and well worth the time to read. Twice.

Someone else is going to have to explain his issue with Chesterfield sofas, though.

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The illustrating image is lightened a bit, since exposures of this kind are hard to judge in the LCD, but this is not digitally composited – some of us simply know how to do this ;-)

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