Dirk Gently's Holistic
Detective Agency
by Douglas Adams
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

And what, you ask, is a holistic detective agency?

Perhaps the ad in the Yellow Pages will answer your
question.  It reads:

DIRK GENTLY’S HOLISTIC DETECTIVE
AGENCY

We solve the whole crime
We find the
whole person
Phone today for the
whole solution to your problem

Does that make everything clear?
No?  Okay, let’s consult Mr. Gently,
the holistic detective himself, and
ask him to explain.  He obliges:

"The term ‘holistic’ refers to my con-
viction that what we are concerned
with here is the fundamental intercon-
nectedness of all things.  I do not
concern myself with such petty things
as fingerprint powder, telltale pieces
of pocket fluff and inane footprints.  
I see the solution to each problem as
being detectable in the pattern and web of the whole."

Hmmm, maybe we need to consult a higher power—in
this case the author, Douglas Adams.   He too obliges
with a pithy description of his novel
Dirk Gently’s Holistic
Detective Agency
: it is, in his words, "a kind of ghost-
horror-detective-time-travel-romantic-comedy-epic,
mainly concerned with mud, music and quantum
mechanics."   

By any reasonable set of standards—which readers
should, of course, put under lock-and-key before
reading a Douglas Adams novel—Mr. Gently is a
charlatan, and his detective agency a scam.  Gently is
not even our would-be hero’s real name, but the latest
in a series of aliases adopted to evade the consequences
incurred by the actions of various previous identities.   
He did attend Cambridge, however…well, at least until
the police took him away in handcuffs after an
unfortunate fund-raising project involving cash
payments and an advance copy of exam questions.   His
greatest talents, judging by his latest exploits as a private
investigator, are padding expenses and sweet-talking
little old ladies who are trying to find missing pets.   
Needless to say, Gently won’t be putting Philip
Marlowe or Mike Hammer out of business any time
soon.

But a big case falls into Gently’s lap, and the sham
sleuth has a chance to prove that his holistic approach
to criminology is not just so much hot air.   A wealthy
high tech tycoon has been murdered in a mysterious late
night shooting, and a former classmate of Gently’s is
sought by police as a possible suspect.    For any other
investigator, this would be enough to keep the plot
moving and the clues coming…but not for a holistic
gumshoe.   While other investigators would collect
evidence, Gently is musing over the space-time
continuum.   And—against all odds!—that’s precisely
where the solution will be found.  
Now, we’re in
Douglas Adams territory.  

Adams never plays it safe here, and his subplots are
marked by his characteristic extravagance.  We have
dead people making phone calls.  We have an "Electric
Monk," who is programmed to believe pretty much
everything that comes to his attention.   We have an
interpretation of the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
that might even be too strange for the MLA.  Heavens,
we even have a horse in the upstairs bathroom, an
impossible conjuring trick, and a sofa in a location that,
by the laws of physics, should not be accessible to any
three-dimensional piece of furniture.  All of these
mysterious matters are clarified in time, and invariably
by the most holistic of means.  

In short, this is a delightful, surprising book.  

Yet,
for all the usual reasons, Douglas Adams falls
through the cracks in discussions of literary matters.   
You don’t need to get too many pages into this novel
before you discover that he is a fine writer, with plenty
of spunk and imagination, who deserves not only his
cult following….but also a bit of respect from the
arbiters of literary reputations.   His dialogue sparkles.  
His characters are memorable and vividly realized.  And
even when he draws on a genre formula, he adds a few
new twists that raise it above the conventional.   

But don’t take that on trust.  Pull out your deerstalker,
or at least your Kindle, and undertake your own bit of
investigating.  For the time being,
Dirk Gently’s Holistic
Detective Agency
is likely still sitting in the science fiction
section of your local bookstore or library.  But the day
may come when it too undergoes a space-time
continuum shift into another, more respected nook in
the pantheon of literature.  And that will be a holistic
change we should all warmly welcome.

Ted Gioia's latest book is The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
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Douglas Adams was a man of many
disguises.  He once attempted to climb
Mount Kilimanjaro while wearing a rhino
costume.  On episodes
of
Monty Python's Flying
Circus
he can be seen dis-
guised in a surgeon’s mask
or in ladies attire. In other
instances he was sighted
hiding behind a guitar
on stage with Pink Floyd,
or mixing it up with Procul
Harum.  When not on the
run, Adams wrote about…
people on the run, hitchhikers with the entire
galaxy available for their great escape.  In real
life, he kept to one planet—and was an
ardent activist in the cause of its ecology and
environment — but did his best to ehaust all
the available outlets for his boundless
creativity: books, television, radio, film,
documentaries, computer games, music,
technology, whatever.  Through it all, he
aimed high, and urged others to do the same.
"Let's think the unthinkable," he once wrote,
"let's do the undoable, let's prepare to grapple
with the ineffable itself, and see if we may
not eff it after all."
ROGUES GALLERY:
DOUGLAS ADAMS
Further Clues:

The Official Douglas Adams Website

Interview with Douglas Adams

Douglas Adams on TechTV

Dirk Gently Comes to BBC TV
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