The 'Dirk Gently' Novels of Douglas Adams
Created | Updated Dec 17, 2010
'The term 'holistic' refers to my conviction that what we are concerned with here is the fundamental interconnectedness 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.'
- Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Douglas Adams is probably best known for the radio series/TV series/novel trilogy1/computer game/towel/feature film, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. That was not, however, his only achievement. As well as a couple of other computer games, a couple of collaborative books2, and countless other interesting projects - such as the site on which this text appears - he was the creator of another memorable 'world': that of Dirk Gently, Holistic Detective.
'As I have endeavoured to explain to you, Mrs Sauskind, over the seven years of our acquaintance, I incline to the quantum mechanical view in this matter. My theory is that your cat is not lost, but that his waveform has temporarily collapsed and must be restored. Schrödinger. Planck. And so on.'
- Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Dirk Gently - real name, Svlad Cjelli - is an unconventional detective, described as someone who is 'rounder than the average undergraduate and wore more hats3'. Generally to be found dressed in a dilapidated brown suit and a 'large and flappy' leather coat, he drives an elderly Jaguar and has an office in Islington, where his secretary is constantly on the verge of quitting. One of his prize possessions is an 'I Ching' calculator that can provide an answer to any calculation, providing the answer is four or less (any answer greater than four is represented by the calculator as 'a suffusion of yellow'). Dirk's minor foibles include his penchant for refusing to ask a question to which he does not already know the answer, and his tendency to navigate by following any convenient vehicle that looks like it knows where its going, trusting that - while he probably won't get where he's going - he is likely to end up where he needs to be. He also appears to have some minor psychic powers, although he has gone to great lengths to deny this. Adams has stated that the character of Dirk Gently was partly based on his friend, Michael Bywater.
The first novel to feature the character was Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, published in 1987 and featuring the eponymous detective working with a Cambridge University professor and a thoroughly confused man named Richard MacDuff. In line with his policy of solving mysteries based on 'the fundamental interconnectedness of things', Gently starts looking for a cat and ends up saving the world. To reveal more than that may impair the enjoyment of those who haven't yet read it, but suffice to say it's as wacky and enjoyable as the rest of Adams' work, featuring, among other things, a horse, an electric monk4, a sofa inexplicably jammed halfway up a staircase, and the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
It is interesting to note that fans of quite a different character might recognise some of the elements of the book from a storyline Adams wrote for Doctor Who. Over the years, Adams had worked on several episodes for the series, both as a writer and script editor, but one episode he wrote - 'Shada' - fell victim to industrial action and was never completed5. Adams, however, never forgot his abandoned script and reworked much of the story into Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Adams also delved into his past for the detail of one of the book's locations - St Cedd's College, Cambridge - which is based on his real Cambridge alma mater, St John's.
In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in about 2:55, when you know you've taken all the baths that you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o'clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul.
- Life, the Universe and Everything, Douglas Adams
Clearly, Adams enjoyed writing about Dirk, and his audience enjoyed reading it, because the following year saw the publication of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. In the book, an explosion in an airport leads Gently to ask, and answer, the question, 'if that was an act of god, which god, and what was it doing in the departures lounge of Heathrow Airport?' The answer is the Norse god of thunder, Thor, who for some inexplicable reason is always accompanied by a large Coca-Cola vending machine, and who finds it very frustrating trying to fit into the world of mortals.
While the first book dealt with travels through time, and played with the paradoxes and entertainments of time travel and ancient University traditions, the second deals with the notion of realities separated by neither time nor space - realities reached by 'slipping behind a molecule'. It deals with acceptance, fitting in, relationships, and the nature of reality. And the need to buy a new fridge when the old one hasn't been opened in several months...
Dirk Gently, hired by someone he never meets, to do a job that is never specified, starts following people at random. His investigations lead him to Los Angeles, through the nasal membranes of a rhinoceros, to a distant future dominated by estate agents and heavily armed kangaroos.
- Fax from Douglas Adams to his editor, Sue Freestone6
After this, Adams' novel writing slowed down a little; he moved on to other projects, such as CD-ROMs, websites and various attempts to bring Hitchhiker's to the cinema. In 1992, he wrote a fifth, somewhat bleaker, book in the 'increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's trilogy'. A few years later, he decided to start another Dirk Gently book, although, in true Douglas Adams style, the writing process appeared to stall several times. He vacillated between working his new material into a Dirk Gently novel, a Hitchhiker's novel, or perhaps something else entirely, and the process was finally interrupted by his untimely death in 2001.
Shortly after Adams' death, his US editor, Peter Guzzardi, was presented with the contents of Adams' hard drives. Searching through some 2,579 files, he came across a collection of folders containing material that had been written for a new Dirk Gently novel. Initially referred to by Adams as 'A Spoon Too Short', later files referred to the unfinished novel as 'The Old Salmon', then 'The Salmon of Doubt' and finally 'LA/Rhino/Ranting Manor'. Guzzardi read through the numerous drafts and redrafts, arranging the strongest material into a coherent storyline. The resulting 11 chapters were published in 2002 as The Salmon of Doubt7. The book also includes a collection of Adams' writing, spanning a letter written to the boys' magazine The Eagle at age 12 to interviews he gave in the 12 months before his death. The body of the book is sandwiched between pieces written by Adams' friends Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins - the latter his official obituary reprinted from The Guardian newspaper - and finishes with the order of service from Adams' memorial service.
The Salmon of Doubt can also be held responsible for leading a fair number of Researchers to h2g2. It contains reprints of Adams' columns for The Independent on Sunday, which included the h2g2 web address and an invitation to join in the discussion.
But seriously, the thing we are most going to want on New Year's Day, and be desperately trying to remember how to make, is a good hangover cure, and especially one that doesn't involve diving through the ice on the Serpentine. The trouble is, we can never remember them when we want them, or even know where to find them. And the reason we can never remember them when we want them is that we heard about them when we didn't actually need them, which isn't any help, for the reasons outlined above. [...] Which is why we need, urgently, to organise them now while there is still time. So this is an appeal for good, effective methods of freshening up the brain on New Year's Day that don't involve actual cranial surgery. Hangover cures, please, therefore, to www.h2g2.com
- Douglas Adams, The Independent on Sunday, December 1999
Favourite ways of beating hangovers were suggested in the forum for this column, which served as Topic of the Week for 22 December, 1999, and ultimately led to a collaborative Entry on hangover cures.
Dirk Gently's first excursions off the page occurred soon after publication of the two books, when abridged versions were recorded as audiobooks. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was read by Adams himself, with The Long Dark Tea-time of the Soul read by Simon Jones8. A few years later, Adams recorded unabridged versions of both books.
In an interview for the Onion AV Club in 1998, Adams described how he'd watched a stage production of Dirk Gently, and started thinking about which bits worked, how it could be improved, and what it might look like in the cinema. He suggested that when the Hitchhiker's movie was finished, he might look into giving Dirk Gently the same treatment. Since Adams' death, however, no plans for a Dirk Gently film have been forthcoming.
In 2007, Dirk Gently was finally dramatised on BBC Radio 4. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was adapted for radio in six parts by Dirk Maggs, who had previously adapted Adams' final three Hitchhiker's books. The part of Dirk Gently was played by Harry Enfield, with Billy Boyd as Richard MacDuff, Olivia Coleman as Dirk's secretary, Janice, and Andrew Sachs as Professor Chronotis.
One year later, the same team created a radio play of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul9, and were joined by Hitchhiker's alumni Stephen Moore10 and Susan Sheridan11.
In October 2010, plans for a television adaptation of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency were announced by the BBC. The part of Dirk will be played by comic actor (and Hitchhiker's fan) Stephen Mangan, with Darren Boyd as Richard Macduff and Helen Baxendale as MacDuff's girlfriend, Susan.
'The new bill reads "To: saving human race from total extinction - no charge."
He put on his hat and left for the day.'
- Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency