12 Books of Christmas: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

If the key to understanding a person really is understanding their hobby horses, then understanding me is a matter of understanding the Mystery-Investigation Complex. While I love science fiction and fantasy, my truest love is the detective story, whether playing fair or hard-boiled. I tend to be a broad consumer in most spheres, but for Detective Stories I tend to be a deep consumer instead: I pick an author and I read them all. I’ve read almost everything ever written by Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, the Three Investigators, the Hardy Boys, Sara Paretsky and Lee Child. Hammett is particularly fascinating because he is the most consciously playful of the major talents in the field, and he’s written my absolute favourite detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. But when I was thinking about what 12 books I thought were most important in my life, it was two other detective novels that kept finding its way into my long-list of possible books for this series and first we’ll talk about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

I was introduced to Douglas Adams by the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at approximately the same pre-pubescent moment that I first encountered Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and one of the frequent topics of debate amongst certain of my friends at the start of high school was which was better and why. I favoured Adams at times and Pratchett at times as my appetite for satire changed forms. Adams felt more whimsical than the early Pratchetts, embracing absurdity to comment on real meaning, and he didn’t quite spoon-feed his notions to the reader as much as Pratchett seemed too. The Improbability Engine which rescues Ford and Arthur from being spaced, for example, resonates with me as a fundamental commentary on how we cope with rare events. At around the same time I encountered Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero and the Red Dwarf novels – I was to discover the TV show a year or two later. Mixed in with these satires I was reading Charles Sheffield, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ben Bova, Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert.

I don’t remember drawing any real distinction between the originals and the satires for a couple of reasons. Most science fiction was not well crafted, or even where it was well-crafted it was so crazy that it required adopting a new thought paradigm to interpret. One of my favourite novels at the time was Alfred Bester’s Extro, which is about a group of immortals who use a super-computer (Extro) to create a new member of their elite selection while space exploration transforms some astronauts into a new species. Science Fiction seemed to exist slightly as a commentary – the destruction of Earth in Hitchhiker’s Guide is a naked attack on Thatcherite development policies – but mostly as a self-contained world to host thought experiments, and satires of the same inward-looking narcissism are frequently even more self-referential. Nowadays, I find it hard to read particularly Heinlein as anything other than a satire on fascism. YMMV.

When I first read Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency I loved it, but as the decades have worn on, it’s really clear that I didn’t understand it at all, and only by a slow process of re-reading, re-evaluating, re-thinking, am I getting anywhere near its full meaning and significance. The surface reading of the novel is that it’s about a software engineer suspected of murdering his boss and the detective, Dirk Gently, who solves the case and hence gets him off. Gently operates on the principle of the world’s total interconnectedness, and on his own immunity from conventional laws and wisdom – much like every other Great Detective ™, but with a good deal more verve than most. He is as much a charlatan as a detective in all honesty, but his charm is that he knows it. Without going into spoilers, what Adams has done in Dirk Gently is create something that utilises the procedural architecture of the detective novel for a completely different purpose.

This complexity means its a novel I can return to a multiplicity of times and read it with a different emphasis. When I was young, the science fictional aspects were the most important, in particular Time Travel was a key selling point. As I got older, it was the unusual methods of Gently’s detection that were most interesting: the idea that everything is interconnected is still a key driver in the way I think. As I’ve gotten older, I’m becoming more interested in the idea of motivation and personality implicit in the Ghost’s ability to influence people. In particular, the sequence where MacDuff and Gently walk along the canal is fascinating, because MacDuff rationalises all kinds of strange behaviour and it doesn’t take much self-awareness to think of occasions where some overt motivation turns out to be merely an excuse for a deeper drive. Most of the racism I’ve seen first hand exists in that space.

Most importantly, I think what Adams does in this novel is advocate that individuals dismiss preconceptions and look directly at the facts. In some ways it’s an antidote to Sherlock Holmes’ baffling quest for complexity. To Holmes the elimination of the impossible is crucial – the process of narrowing down possibilities into the “least improbable”, the reality. Gently instead prompts an imaginative leap into the possible – why eliminate the impossible, he asks, if it’s what’s proposed by the facts in evidence? Gently’s world is much bigger than Holmes’.

Adams, Douglas. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Paw Prints, 2009.

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One Response to 12 Books of Christmas: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

  1. Daniel says:

    Thanks for encapsulating much of my thoughts regarding Douglas Adams in comparison to Terry Pratchett. I need to comment though on the Dirk Gently books. The parts that resonated most with me, the I Ching calculator which was one shade of glorious, and the policeman who hired Dirk to turn an elaborate death scene into a mundane suicide so there was less paperwork. I loved the idea of a detective ‘unsolving’ a murder for bureaucratic purposes.

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