May 2, 2013

Books of May: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams (1987)

Books of May highlights books - both fiction and non-fiction - that have engaged, entertained or otherwise made a significant impact on me over the years. The goal is to highlight one book a day for the entire month. Today, book #2: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, by English author Douglas Adams.

The late Douglas Adams was many things, but to be brutally honest a good author was probably not one of them. He started his career as a sketch writer, and his first major work - the BBC radio comedy The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, was pretty much just a loose series of comedy sketches that simply happened to feature the same characters in each scene. He was a remarkable humourist, and a very perceptive social commentator, but if there was one thing he seemed relatively incapable of doing it was developing a proper plot.

His Hitchhiker's novels (five in all) either meandered, road-trip style, from one event to another, or they simply felt very woolly. They were slackly drawn, mainly because he generally hated writing so much that when forced by his publisher to deliver a manuscript he'd simply lock himself in a hotel room for a fortnight and bang the whole book out in one draft.

So why am I recommending one of his books? Because Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is simply brilliant. It's possibly my all-time favourite novel.

Unlike his other novels, this one - and to a lesser extent its sequel The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul - has a very tight plot. It's a highly complex, labyrinthine plot, but it's there and it works. I'm not surprised it works so much better than his other plots, since Adams essentially plagiarised his own work by cobbling together elements from two of his Doctor Who scripts: "City of Death" and "Shada". The plot involves time travel, ghosts, possession, evolution, detective work, quantum theory and crime.

It was, when published, the first fiction Adams had written in seven years that wasn't an adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I think this gives the book a freshness and enthusiasm on Adams' part, simply because he's clearly enjoying the experience of writing an entirely new set of characters. They're great characters as well. Dirk Gently, the dodgy private detective (or 'holistic detective', as he claims to be), is as strong a creation as Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, or any other number of Hitchhiker's characters. Time-travelling university professor Reg Chronotis is great too, as well as Richard MacDuff, Susan and Gordon Way, Janice the secretary and the electric monk.

Oh yes, the monk. It's my favourite creation out of all Douglas Adams works: a robot monk, created as an appliance for rich, bored aliens. Just like (as Adams explains it) a video recorder will record TV shows so you don't have to watch them yourself, or a microwave will heat up food so you don't have to eat the food yourself, an electric monk will believe all things you don't particularly want to bother believing yourself. It's a genius, bonkers idea, and I was always rather sad that both the TV and theatre adaptations excised the character entirely.

There was a short-lived television adaptation, Dirk Gently, that ran for a one-off TV movie and three episodes and starred Stephen Mangan (Green Wing, Episodes). It wasn't particularly good in my opinion. I think the definitive adaptation of this novel is still out there somewhere, waiting to be made. In the meantime, you should definitely check the hell out of the novel: it's brilliant.

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