Among my absolute favorite books in exis­tence are the titles that com­prise The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, by Dou­glas Adams. I first read these novels as an impres­sion­able young grade schooler, back when vast tracts of my per­son­al­ity had yet to be deter­mined. I don’t believe I had a ter­ri­bly strong or inde­pen­dent sense of humor at the time, and I relied in good part on others to indi­cate to me the things that were funny. My older brother indi­cated to me that the Hitchhiker’s Guide was, in fact, quite funny. So I read it.

In this view, I guess you could say that my sense of humor is in part defined by the Hitchhiker’s Guide—and if my brother had sug­gested Twain instead, maybe this web­comic would fea­ture a couple fewer time trav­el­ing teddy bears and couple more mis­chie­vous young rap­scal­lions trav­el­ing down the Mis­sis­sippi.

Anyway, the point is that I really like the Hitchhiker’s Guide. But Dou­glas Adams wrote other things, too. One of these other things was a novel called Dirk Gently’s Holis­tic Detec­tive Agency, a book I only just recently got around to read­ing. And since I couldn’t think of any­thing better to do for my post this week, I’ve decided to write a review of this book. This 22-year-old book.1 So here goes:

In gen­eral I quite liked it. Adams is an astound­ingly funny guy, but it’s easy to forget that he’s also a first-​rate writer. Dirk Gently feels much more cohe­sive and put-​together than Hitchhiker’s Guide, which, owing to its ori­gins as a radio serial, always felt like a pas­tiche of funny bits duct-​taped together with a story that was really just an excuse to keep the absur­dity rolling. (The Guide always reminded me of the Monty Python movies in that way.) Gently, on the other hand, feels very much like a mys­tery novel, where the plot is more or less insep­a­ra­ble from what’s going on at any instant. Or rather, keep­ing in spirit with the novel’s title, the book feels very much like a uni­fied whole, each part inter­con­nect­ing with the other in mul­ti­far­i­ous and often unex­pected ways.

The flip-​side to this strong sense of unity is that the book doesn’t seem quite as funny as Hitchhiker’s Guide. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still laugh-out-loud funny2—just not as laugh-out-loud funny as one might expect. Not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing, but for some­one approach­ing the book as a Hitchhiker’s Guide fan (and unfor­tu­nately, the com­par­isons do seem inevitable) it could be a slight let-​down. The Guide is wholly remark­able for the way you can open it to a random chap­ter, read, and be enriched by the expe­ri­ence; I used to keep a copy on my night­stand so I could con­tem­plate a dif­fer­ent pas­sage every night (like a bible, but awe­somer). But whereas whole chap­ters of the Guide are ded­i­cated to the deep explo­ration of amus­ing minu­tiae, appar­ent non sequiturs, and the con­vo­luted his­tory of the galaxy, the jokes in Dirk Gentle feel smaller, rel­e­gated to smart turns of phrase tucked into con­ver­sa­tions and Adams’ char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally dry obser­va­tions on the absur­di­ties of every­day life.

That all said, Dirk Gently is still incred­i­bly funny and you shouldn’t not read it because you expect it won’t be3. That would be wrong. The book’s just dif­fer­ent, that’s all.

As a mys­tery novel, it bless­edly gives the reader a little space to come to her own real­iza­tions. It’s mostly free of the sort of Holme­sian expo­si­tion that mer­ci­lessly blud­geons you, the reader, with the fact that, gosh golly gee, isn’t this detec­tive so ridicu­lously clever, and gee whiz, isn’t every other person involved (impli­ca­tion: YOU, the reader) a big doofus in com­par­i­son? (Even though the whole solu­tion to the puzzle hinged upon some obscure detail, some iota of eso­teric arcana that couldn’t have pos­si­bly been deduced by any actual person? Let’s just gloss over that point, why don’t we?) When­ever Gently is one step ahead, at least you still have a sense of where the hell he’s at. By nar­rat­ing freely between sev­eral con­cur­rently unrav­el­ing sto­ries, Adams grad­u­ally builds for you the kind of holis­tic nar­ra­tive that Gently is obvi­ously build­ing in his own mind; there­fore, you tend to feel in stride with the goofy detec­tive than hope­lessly behind him. Read­ing the novel, I felt remark­ably on top of things. I also felt like I was putting things together on my own, not being spoon-​fed the infor­ma­tion. Like a real detec­tive! How excit­ing!

The only down­side was that some­times I found myself scream­ing at the char­ac­ters: “IT’S SO SIMPLE! HOW CAN YOU NOT SEEEEEE?!?” This must be the inner mono­logue con­stantly sup­pressed by every fic­tional super-​detective ever con­ceived. Per­haps it’s what drove Holmes to the cocaine. Watson was a pretty dense dude, after all.

Not everything’s amaz­ing. I might com­plain that the char­ac­ters all seem a bit flat and unbe­liev­able. The author’s voice is hella strong and tends to drown out the char­ac­ters’ indi­vid­ual voices. It reminded me of watch­ing a Kevin Smith movie: the whole time, a tiny corner of my mind kept shriek­ing, “NO! NOBODY TALKS LIKE THAT. AUUAA­GAGUAH­GAHUGAH.” In ret­ro­spect, this was also an issue with Hitchhiker’s Guide—but there the offense was made slightly less egre­gious in the con­text of an unapolo­get­i­cally out­landish plot. Not to say that Dirk Gently‘s plot isn’t out­landish, but it at least takes place mostly on earth, mostly in the present, and mostly con­cern­ing humans. Mostly.

I might also say that this is the sort of book that demands a reread. I might say, but I haven’t yet reread the book, so I won’t. (To be fair, I did quite a bit of paging-​back the first time through.)

As a final word of warning—if you do decide to read the book, you may find parts of it dif­fi­cult to piece together with­out being famil­iar with (of all things!) the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge; specif­i­cally, the poems Kubla Kahn and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. If you haven’t read them, a quick perusal of the rel­e­vant Wikipedia arti­cles should put you on solid foot­ing. (But a word to the wise: be wary of trivia sec­tions, for spoil­ers abound! And while you’re exam­in­ing Wikipedia, it goes with­out saying that the Dirk Gently arti­cle is strictly off-​limits. I know it’s obvi­ous, but if you’re like me and get an idi­otic thrill from look­ing up books as you’re read­ing them—don’t even try with this one. The spoil­ers start on the second sen­tence of the plot sum­mary.)

1 Chronil­log­i­cal: it’s break­ing news…. some­time.
3 Woo! Triple-​negative!


Discussion (8) ¬

  1. anonymous says:

    Ah, yes. But did you go on to read “The Long Dark Tea-​Time of the Soul”? That’s the book that will make you regret that he wrote only two Dirk Gen­tlys …. well, maybe two and a half.

  2. Greg says:

    I haven’t read it, but it’s def­i­nitely on my list now. And then I’ve got to read The Salmon of Doubt. I’m so far behind on these things, so far behind.

  3. John says:

    You should borrow my copy of Salmon when the Time is Right.

  4. Brad says:

    Where the hell do you find all this free time? I’m up to my ass in finals and final projects. When Shlomo says that some­thing is going to be chal­leng­ing, it is wise to believe him… sigh.

  5. Greg says:

    I have dis­tilled the expla­na­tion into a simple for­mula:

    pro­cras­ti­na­tion + no finals + seniori­tis = time to read

  6. Kate says:

    I concur with anony­mous. I read “The Long Dark Tea-​Time of the Soul” before I read the first Dirk Gently, and it’s awe­somer, in my opin­ion.

  7. Ed Peters says:

    I know what you mean, Greg, when you say that in part your sense of humor is deter­mined by the Guide. I read the Guide in middle school, at the age of twelve. Now, then I was much as you described your­self. I describe then-​myself now as an absolute loser. How­ever, read­ing the Guide began an avalanche of awe­some­ness that, six years later, has made me who I am today (and all my friends agree that I’m a pretty cool guy now.)

    So, I just thought I’d share my story with you.

    Also, I enjoy your comic immensely. Although I find I have for­got­ten how I came across it.

    Stay hoopy, frood.

  8. Greg says:

    Ed, you are clearly a man who really knows where his towel is. I salute you.