Feb 27, 2008

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently is a holistic detective. This means that he believes in the fundamental interconnectedness of everything:
The term holistic refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I do not concern myself with such petty things as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces of pocked fluff and inane footprints. I see the solution to each problem as being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole. The connections between causes and effects are much more subtle and complex than we with our rough understanding of the physical world might naturally suppose.
Dirk Gently’s specialty are missing cats and messy divorces, but the mystery he has to solve in this book is not exactly of that nature.

For starters, the holistic detective himself doesn't make an appearance until about a hundred pages into the book. What we have before that are several seemingly unrelated events which are brilliantly connected as the story progresses. Therefore, summarizing the plot of this book is no easy task. It’s not that it’s a difficult plot to follow, but it is, to quote Dirk Gently, subtle and complex. But let me attempt it anyway:

Richard MacDuff, a software engineer for Way Forward Technologies, attends an annual Coleridge dinner in Cambridge at the invitation of his old tutor, Professor Chronotis. During this dinner, an impossible conjuring trick is performed, a horse unexplainably pops up in his tutor’s bathroom, and Professor Chronotis acts even more strangely than normal (and this in a faculty where the professors’ eccentricities almost put the wizards of Terry Pratchett’s Unseen University to shame).

On the way back from said dinner, Richard thinks he sees his boss, Gordon Way, jump out into the road through which he is driving. This gives him quite a scare, and causes him to swerve and by pulled over by a policeman. At the time, Richard does not yet know that his boss has been shot, and this was indeed his ghost that he saw, trying to attract the attention of the living. He is made aware of this fact the following day by his former university colleague, Dirk Gently, who also tells him that he is a suspect of Gordon's murder.

It is very hard to summarize the plot further without giving too much away, but let us just say it involves time travelling, a sofa stuck in a staircase at an impossible angle, ancient secrets, multi-tentacled aliens, ghosts, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, Bach, and Electric Monks.

Like the rest of Douglas Adams’ work, this book is very humorous, but, also like the rest of his work (and this is one of the reasons why I’m such a big fan of his), there is a note of melancholy and seriousness mixed with the humour. While telling the story, he questions our assumptions about the world in an intelligent and subtle way, and he cleverly makes observations about the things we take for granted.

I loved how at the start of the story the science fiction elements are very subtle – the reader is gradually made aware that the world that is being described is not exactly our world. I also loved how Coleridge's poems “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (and the myth of the person from Porlock) were ingeniously incorporated into the plot. But, again, I cannot explain further without giving too much away.

All in all, this was a very satisfying science fiction mystery, and I really look forward to reading the sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.

A side note that I found interesting: It was due to this novel that Douglas Adams’ famous friendship with Richard Dawkins began. Dawkins loved the book: for the first time in his life, he began reading a book again the moment he had finished it (and I can see why he would do that: once everything is made clear at the end, one has the urge to go back and trace all the clues). He wrote to Adams saying so, Adams replied saying he was a fan of his work too, and inviting him to his house in London. It was thus that the two became friends.


  1. This is one of my favorite Douglas Adams books. However, I think the sequel is a whole lot better. Hope you like that one, too.

  2. Wow. This sounds way too good to pass up!

  3. I thought this sounded vaguely familiar-I've read the sequel years ago(I didn't know it was a sequel, though). It's pretty awesome-Thor's in it! :)

  4. I have to admit I started reading this book and simply stayed at that. Hahaha! I don't know why, maybe it was me but I couldn't get past the first few pages (I think I reached the part of the monk and all things pink) and eventually gave it up.

    Now I read this review and maybe I should've given it the attention it deserves. Hahaha!

  5. Melissa: It's even better? Thanks to your comment I've just mooched a copy. Can't wait to read it!

    Debi: I really do think it is!

    Eva: Thor! It does sound awesome. Like I told Melissa I have just mooched a copy, and I'm really really looking forward to reading it.

    Lightheaded: lol, the monk that saw everything pink. I can definitely understand struggling with it for the first 30-40 pages - like I said, the first few scenes are seemingly unrelated and nothing much makes sense. It was just when I got to the chapter about the Coleridge dinner that I got hooked, and from then on I couldn't put it down! After that point he connection between things begins to be revealed and you gradually realize just how cool the plot is. So yeah...give it another shot!

  6. I keep meaning to read this but haven't yet gotten around to it. When I met Richard Dawkins and his wife (she was one of the Dr Who sidekicks) after a talk he did, we got to talking about Douglas Adams. She told me it was him who introduced her to Richard which is a very cool way to meet your husband!

  7. I loved The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy and all the books that followed in that so-called trilogy. I definitely must read this one as well. You're review convinced me of that.

  8. Check out James Lee Burke.

  9. Rhinoa: A very cool way to meet your husband indeed! That's so cool that you got to talk about Douglas Adams with them.

    Literary Feline: If you loved Hitchhiker's then I'd say there's no way you won't love this too! You really must read it.

    Paul: I hadn't heard of him before. Thanks for the recommendation!

    Trish: It really was :)


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