|Dirk Gently's Holistic
by Douglas Adams
Essay 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
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
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
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
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture.
His latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.
Essay published August 23, 2011
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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
exhaust 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
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