It’s Bigger On The Inside (And Better Than The Script): “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” by Douglas Adams

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Copyright © 1987 by Douglas Adams.

You might know Douglas Adams as the late author of the highly-acclaimed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book series, but did you also know that he used to be a script editor for Doctor Who?  Specifically during its seventeenth season, with Tom Baker in the role of the Doctor.

During his run, Adams wrote three serials for the show, two of which were aired (“The Pirate Planet” and “City of Death”).  The third serial (“Shada”) did not air due to an industrial dispute, though its plot and part of “City of Death” saw new life in a novel by Adams called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

The Story: Save The Cat, Save The World

Richard MacDuff is a software programmer who finds himself caught in the middle of a very bizarre weekend.  It begins with a visit to his old professor Reg at St. Cedd’s College, goes through the mysterious murder of his boss Gordon Way, and ends up with a plot involving an ancient alien ghost, a time machine, an Electric Monk, and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Only Dirk Gently, Richard’s former classmate and a self-styled “holistic detective,” has any chance of putting all the pieces together and figuring out the best solution to this crisis.

The Cast: Holistic Detectives And The Ghosts They’re After

In comparing to the original Doctor Who script it was based on, there are a lot of telling similarities.  The title character, Dirk Gently, is basically the Fourth Doctor: eccentric, adventurous, and a tiny bit callous.  Richard MacDuff is a typical Companion character, whose role is mostly to be startled and ask “What is it?” when faced with fantastic things like ghosts and time machines.  Gordon Way becomes more interesting as a ghost, especially as he reexamines how much he took life for granted and all the mechanics it involves (like using the phone).

Professor Urban Chronotis, or “Reg,” is the same character in this novel that he is in Adams’s script for Shada–an absent-minded professor who prattles on about the history like he’s been there and is fond of pulling little pranks.  He’s a very good contrast, a balance between senile and cunning that is hard to tell one apart from the other.  The only key difference from the Doctor Who script is that the TV Reg is secretly a Time Lord with all the appropriate powers and ancient lore.

The Style: “The Fundamental Interconnectedness Of All Things”

Besides bearing Adams’s trademark wit and irreverence, there is a recurring motif based on quantum mechanics throughout the novel.  Early on, the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat is brought up and parodied.  In a nutshell, Schrodinger’s Cat illustrates how things work at the quantum level of reality, at times contradicting itself and yet somehow managing to be coherent enough to give rise to a material universe.  And much like how the Doctor bends the laws of time and space to his will, Dirk Gently gets a surprisingly coherent answer despite being in the most random of starting positions.  And much like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the moment you think you know where Dirk’s train of thought is going, you’re sure to lose him once again.

Final Verdict: A Brilliant Read And A Fun Thought Experiment

Regardless of its origin, the first of the Dirk Gently novels is a great read.  The characters are colorful, the humor is nonstop and well-timed, and the scientific thought that pervades it will challenge and inspire you with its eccentric logic (that is to say, the logic is sane, but its application is not).  I would also recommend looking into its sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, as well as the unfinished third sequel and post-mortem Adams compendium, The Salmon of Doubt.

Bibliography: Adams, Douglas.  Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.  London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1987.

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