Interlude: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Richard MacDuff, the software genius behind a program that turns corporate accounts into theme music, returns to old college at the behest of Reg, an eccentric old professor. He is startled to find a horse in the bathroom of Reg's rooms, then horrified that he forgot to pickup his girlfriend Susan, sister of his employer, and finally moved to climb up the wall to Susan's flat and sneak in to steal the answering machine tape on which he's left an embarrassing message. But all of that is just the beginning of a strange web of coincidences which will require the services of a certain holistic detective.  

I was inspired to read this again by the upcoming BBC series, and also recently re-reading the first Hitchhikers novel for the first time in years. On a recent trip to visit my parents I retrieved my 1989 paperback edition from my grandmother's shed, along with a bunch of other stuff I intend to get around to re-reading, and all my various editions of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. (At last count, I own five (soon to be six) of the first novel, three of the second and third, and two of the last two. Add an extra if you count the first volume of the terrible comic book adaptation; I don't.) I first read this book around the age of 10, and I was a bit young to take it all in properly, so it was a great pleasure to revisit.

Things I noticed this time around:
  • The plot is much more coherent that I recall, though a few bits - notably the electric monk and the murder of Gordon Way - seem a little left in the cold compared to the main narrative. The main bits are still clearly cribbed from two of Adams' Doctor Who scripts - mostly City of Death, with a bit of Shada thrown in for flavour - but it's really just the skeleton that's been robbed.
  • Dirk himself isn't mentioned until Chapter Six, where we get Richard's version of his backstory; we don't encounter him at all until Chapter Fourteen, when he's a voice on a telephone; and we don't meet him in person until Chapter Sixteen. Once he arrives, however, he is the force that propels us to the conclusion, though frankly it's hard to get a handle on him and Richard is the real protagonist, inasmuch as the book has one. Dirk's fun, but it's hard to imagine him being the main character; I'll have to re-read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul to remember how he fares there.
  • While there are some great funny lines in here, the book is remarkably serious; this is much less frivolous than Hitchhikers. Whole passages are amusing but grim, or amusing but poignant, and the greater grounding in reality gives the characters more weight. It's not just Arthur Dent rattling about reacting to an insane universe; there are only two truly eccentric characters, and everyone else is real and flawed.
  • The conclusion feels...rushed. Even knowing the basics of it, it seems half-finished, and I was amazed to find myself 20 pages from the end before a climax. And indeed, the conclusion seems to skip the climax entirely, going from crisis to having tea after the resolution in the space of a paragraph or two. Indeed, how the protagonists save the day is merely hinted at; the specifics are not revealed. It's a terrible way to end an otherwise excellent book.
So great fun, but flawed. I can't imagine, based on the novel, how a television series about Dirk can possibly work, unless they invent new stories using just the idea of the character. Even then we're going to need someone who isn't Dirk around, because - while enjoyable - he's more-or-less an insufferable prat, despite his dubious talents. But I'll leave you with my favourite gag, from page 109:
What kind of tie would you wear if you were a private detective? Presumably it would have to be exactly the sort of tie that people wouldn't expect private detectives to wear. Imagine having to sort out a problem like that when you'd just got up.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that this (and the other Gently book) are deeply flawed. I still love listening to Adams read them, though.
    My favourite bits are mostly from the beginning, at the academic dinner. This may be partly from having an academic father and spending large portions of my childhood discussing academic theory with him.
    "What really is the point of trying to teach anything to anybody?"
    This question seemed to provoke a murmur of sympathetic approval from up and down the table.
    Richard continued, "What I mean is that if you really want to understand something, the best way is to try and explain it to someone else. That forces you to sort it out in your mind. And the more slow and dim-witted your pupil, the more you have to break things down into more and more simple ideas. And that's really the essence of programming. By the time you've sorted out a complicated idea into little steps that even a stupid machine can deal with, you've learned something about it yourself. The teacher usually learns more than the pupils. Isn't that true?
    "It would be hard to learn much less than my pupils," came a low growl from somewhere on the table, "without undergoing a pre-frontal lobotomy."

    This book was one of many reasons why I wanted to take up cello, and the primary reason for, once I did, purchasing a book of Bach's solo cello pieces.
    It also caused me to have a lasting love of the musicality of Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'.