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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (radio)

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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (radio)

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Front cover from the first UK hardcover edition of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
Front cover from the first UK hardcover edition
Author Douglas Adams
Country England
Language English
Series Dirk Gently
Genre Fantasy
Science fiction novel
Publisher UK: William Heinemann Ltd., US: Pocket Books
Publication date 1987
Media type Print (Paperback and Hardcover), Audiobook (cassette and compact disc)
Pages 306 pp (paperback edition)
ISBN 0-671-69267-4
OCLC Number 320855177
Followed by The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a humorous detective novel by Douglas Adams, first published in 1987. It is described by the author on its cover as a "thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic".

The book was followed by a sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. The only recurring major characters are the eponymous Gently, his secretary Janice Pearce and Sergeant Gilks. Adams also began work on another novel, The Salmon of Doubt with the intention of publishing it as the third book in the series, but died before completing it.

A BBC Radio adaptation starring Harry Enfield was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in October 2007. A second series based on the sequel was broadcast on October 2008. A 2010 television adaptation by Howard Overman for BBC Four borrowed some of the characters and some minor plot elements of the novel to create a new story.


The genesis of the novel was in two Doctor Who serials written by Adams, City of Death, (in which an alien tries to change history at the cost of erasing humanity from existence), and in particular the cancelled serial Shada, which first introduces a Cambridge professor called Chronotis who is hundreds of years old. He has been living and working at a Cambridge college for centuries, apparently attracting no attention (noting with appreciation that the porters are very discreet). In Shada, Chronotis's longevity is due to him being a Time Lord, and his time machine is an early model TARDIS. These trademark elements from Doctor Who were removed by Adams for Dirk Gently. Shada, which never aired due to a production strike terminating its filming, was later released on VHS with Tom Baker narrating the unfilmed segments, and later completed as a webcast with Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and John Leeson as K9.[1]

A number of elements in the novel were inspired by Adams' time at university. For example, one plot thread involves moving a sofa which is irreversibly stuck on the staircase to Richard's apartment; according to his simulations, not only is it impossible to remove it, but there is no way for it to have got into that position in the first place. In a similar incident that occurred while Douglas Adams attended St John's College, Cambridge, furniture was placed in the rooms overlooking the river in Third Court while the staircases were being refurbished. When the staircases were completed, it was discovered that the sofas could no longer be removed from the rooms, and the sofas remained in those rooms for several decades.

The South Bank Show revealed that Adams based Chronotis' rooms on the rooms he occupied in his third year at university. Likewise, Richard's room – filled with Macintosh computers and synthesisers – was based on Adams' own flat (visited and photographed by Hi-Fi Choice Magazine). The piece of music by Bach that is heard aboard the satellite is "Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ" from the cantata "Bleib bei uns, denn es will Abend werden", BWV 6 (also an organ chorale BWV 649). Adams stated that this was his personal "absolutely perfect" piece of music, and that he listened to it "over and over; drove my wife completely insane" while writing Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.[2]

Plot summary

In the book the plot emerges in a fragmented way, with shifting points of view and events that seem out of order. As presented, it shows Richard MacDuff avoiding his boss by going to the Coleridge dinner at his old college, and witnessing his former tutor, Prof. Chronotis, perform an inexplicable magic trick where he makes a cruet disappear and then finds it again by smashing an ancient clay pot that a young girl brought to the dinner, having found it on holiday in Greece. He encounters a horse in the Professor's lodgings, which the Professor is alarmed about but unable to explain. He returns to his London flat and finds himself doing things that are out of character, including climbing a drainpipe to break into Susan Way's flat to erase an embarrassing message he left on her answering machine. At that point Dirk Gently intervenes and sets about solving the mystery, even though MacDuff was not aware that there was one. Interspersed with this are passages describing Gordon Way driving his expensive car to his country home, being killed by the Electric Monk, becoming a ghost and attempting to tell MacDuff something very important.

Four billion years in Earth's past, a group of Salaxalans attempts to populate the Earth; however, a mistake caused by their engineer – who used an Electric Monk to irrationally believe the proposed fix would work – causes their landing craft to explode, killing the Salaxalans and generating the spark of energy needed to start the process of life on Earth. The ghost of the Salaxalan engineer roams the earth waiting to undo his mistake, watching human life develop and waiting to find a soul that it can possess. The ghost finds it can only possess individuals that fundamentally want to do the same task it is trying to accomplish itself. Otherwise, it is only able to influence the individual in subtle ways.

In the early 19th century, the ghost discovers Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Although we appear to be in our reality, we are in fact in a parallel universe in which Coleridge's laudanum fuelled dreaming of "Kubla Khan" has not been disturbed by the man from Porlock. The ghost influences the writer to inspire "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" to describe the accident, the evolution of life on Earth and how to correct the problem that destroyed the landing craft in the distant past. The ghost begins seeking out someone whose hardship can be influenced by Coleridge's work when it becomes apparent to him that Coleridge himself is too 'relaxed' on laudanum to be useful to him. It later discovers that Professor Urban "Reg" Chronotis at St Cedd's possesses a time machine disguised as his quarters. In the late 20th century, during the annual St Cedd's dinner reading of "Kubla Khan", the ghost influences Reg to use the time machine to perform a bit of trickery for a young child at the dinner, while the ghost lures another Electric Monk into Reg's quarters. Upon return to the present, the ghost finds the Monk unusable for its purposes. The Monk then goes off to kill Wayforward Technologies II's CEO, Gordon Way, due to a misunderstanding.

The ghost later tries to influence Richard MacDuff, a former student of Reg and current employee of Gordon Way, who was also at the Coleridge reading. Richard finds himself breaking into the apartment of Susan Way—his girlfriend and Gordon's sister— to erase an answering machine message. His actions lead the police to consider Richard a suspect in the murder of Gordon. Richard discusses this with his former college friend Dirk Gently, who claims to be a "Holistic Detective" believing in the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things". Currently on the case of a missing cat, Dirk examines Richard and finds him to have been in a hypnotic-like state, and determines that Richard was temporarily possessed. Richard recounts the events from the Coleridge reading, including Reg's trick; Dirk, after consulting with a child, concludes that the only way the trick was possible was with a time machine. The two approach Reg, who admits to this fact.

Meanwhile, the ghost has found Michael Wenton-Weakes, a recently-fired editor of an arts magazine. Through subtle influences the ghost makes Michael read Coleridge's works and convinces him to kill Albert Ross, the editor who replaced him. Both now have sought to erase those that supplant them, and the ghost is able to fully possess Michael's body. The ghost, in Michael's body, arrives at Reg's quarters while Dirk and Richard are there, and demands Reg use his time machine to return to the period of the Salaxalan crash. They travel back, and ghost-possessed Michael, using a makeshift environmental suit, sets up to repair the damage to the Salaxalan craft. While they watch, Richard receives a call from Susan from the 20th century on Reg's phone, a quirk of the time machine due to the phone company. Richard learns of Ross's murder, and Dirk quickly surmises the ghost's plan, which if successful will erase the formation of life on Earth. Realising Michael was influenced by Coleridge's works, Dirk instructs Reg to take them to the 19th century, allowing Dirk to interrupt Coleridge long enough to disrupt the ghost's possession and prevent the full version of "Kubla Khan" from ever having been written and leaving us only with Coleridge's half remembered fragment - thus bringing the novel's universe into line with our own.

Upon arrival back in the 20th century, Dirk, Richard, and Reg find humanity as they expect it but with very small, subtle changes. Reg also discovers his time machine no longer functions, after having the telephone company repair the phone line to his quarters. Dirk learns that the missing cat was never missing in the first place as a result of their actions, and sends his client a revised bill that reads, "To: saving human race from total extinction - no charge."

Characters in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

  • Dirk Gently (also known by a number of other names, including Svlad Cjelli), the operator of the eponymous detective agency that operates based on the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things." He specialises in missing cats and messy divorces. At university, Dirk, seemingly deliberately, created rumours about having clairvoyant abilities by vigorously denying that he had any. He concocted a "get-rich scheme" offering a university exam preparation service and was eventually sent to prison when, by sheer coincidence, he accurately duplicated the exam papers for that year without having seen them.
  • Richard MacDuff, a young software engineer working for WayForward Technologies II, owned by Gordon Way. His Anthem software, which is designed as a spreadsheet, but also has a unique feature to convert corporate accounts into music, was extremely popular, but he is falling behind in his deadlines to create an updated version. Throughout the book, he tries to figure out how a couch became impossibly stuck in the L-shaped stairway to his flat, forcing him and any visitors to climb over it to get to his flat.
  • Reg (Professor Urban Chronotis, the Regius Professor of Chronology), Richard's old college tutor, a fellow of St. Cedd's College, Cambridge with no apparent duties, who is "on the older side of completely indeterminate". He has a predisposition for childish conjuring tricks and an extremely bad memory.
  • Gordon Way, the owner of WayForward, who is pressuring Richard to complete his behind-schedule software project, and ends up getting shot for no immediately obvious reason a few chapters into the book.
  • Susan Way, sister of Gordon Way and professional cellist, and the "specific girl that Richard is not married to".
  • An Electric Monk from a planet very far from the Earth. Electric monks are coincidentally humanoid robots designed to practice religion in their owners' stead. This particular monk had accidentally been connected to a video recorder and, in attempting to believe everything on the TV, had malfunctioned and begun to believe "all kinds of things, more or less at random", including things like tables being hermaphrodites and God wanting a lot of money sent to a certain address. Since it was cheaper to replace the Monk than to repair it, the Monk was cast out in the wilderness to believe whatever it liked. The Monk also owns a somewhat cynical horse, which he was allowed to keep because "horses were so cheap to make". Upon his arrival on Earth, the Monk has several humorous misadventures.
  • Michael Wenton-Weakes, the spoiled son of wealthy parents, known pejoratively as "Michael Wednesday-Week," which is when he promises to have things done by, such as the next issue of his poorly-managed magazine Fathom. His mother sold Fathom to Gordon Way after his father's accidental death when the latter was changing an electric plug. While Michael seems largely apathetic and yielding to others, the loss of Fathom bothers him much more deeply than anyone realises.
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, writer, one of the founders of the English Romantic Movement. Also a famous laudanum user. In the novel, he is an alumnus of St. Cedd's College. His poems Kubla Khan and Rime of the Ancient Mariner figure prominently in the plot.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer, does not in fact exist in the novel's universe. At the beginning of the story Susan, a concert cellist, is having problems practising a piece by Mozart. During the novel Prof. Chronotis uses his time machine to board the Salaxian ship, still in orbit around the Earth. Inside the ship they encounter elaborate and beautiful music that seems to be the result of the ship's computer system operation, similar to Richard's Anthem program. After they have foiled the ghost's plot and destroyed the ship, Richard finds Susan practising the same music he heard aboard the ship. She tells him it is by Bach. Prof. Chronotis later tells Richard that he downloaded all the music, introduced it in the Baroque period and invented a fake composer for it.

Major themes

The central motif of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. Many details may appear superfluous, but turn out to be integral to the plot, such as a sofa belonging to Richard that has somehow become trapped on his staircase. Its position is such that it not only cannot be removed intact (eventually being sawed apart by the police), but also apparently could not have arrived there in the first place. The situation is ultimately explained by the time machine's arrival at the staircase wall three weeks in the past, when the sofa was being delivered; Dirk opened the door to help the delivery men get it up the stairs, but the machine departed before they could finish maneuvering around the corner. Chaos theory, in its accessible form popularised by writers such as James Gleick, also figures prominently in the novel.

The novel's title mentions the idea of holism. There are quantum mechanics references as well; phenomena of non-locality, as in the EPR paradox, make appearances, and the concept of Schrödinger's Cat plays a part in helping Dirk determine Richard's mental state, Richard producing clear and rational arguments for why the experiment proposed in the theory cannot be carried out in reality.

The story also mocks the corporate world with both the software called Anthem, which converts spreadsheets to pleasant music, and another package called Reason, which inverts the idea of a decision-making program. Instead of proceeding from ideas and logic to a decision, it takes a decision that has already been made and creates a reasoned justification for it. However instead of selling it to corporations, Gordon Way secretly sold the software to the American government to be used in justifying its policies.

Literary significance and reception

Reviewing the book for The Times, John Nicholson wrote it was "endearingly dotty", but doubted its commercial potential.[3] Austin MacCurtain of the Sunday Times reviewed the paperback edition in 1988, saying that it was "more of the same" as Hitchhiker's, and that the "cosmic romp is stretched thin at times but will not disappoint fans".[4] The book was the 9th highest-selling hardback in the UK in 1987.[5]

In 1990, the Magill Book Reviews said "The author's whimsical sense of humor and his sense that the universe has many unexplored possibilities will arouse the interest of a wide readership."[6]

This novel caused Adams to become acquainted with the well-known scientist Richard Dawkins. As Dawkins explains, "As soon as I finished it, I turned back to page one and read it straight through again – the only time I have ever done that, and I wrote to tell him so. He replied that he was a fan of my books, and he invited me to his house in London."[7] Adams would later introduce Dawkins to the woman who was to become his third wife, the actress Lalla Ward, best known for playing the character Romana in Doctor Who. One of her early serials on the programme was City of Death, which Adams wrote, and which shares certain plot elements with the novel.


On 5 January 1992, Dirk Gently, Richard MacDuff, Dirk's secretary, and the Electric Monk all appeared in the Douglas Adams episode of the British arts documentary series The South Bank Show.[8] Michael Bywater played Dirk, while Paul Shearer played both Richard and the Monk. Several characters from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were also featured, played by the original television series actors.

The book has been adapted for stage performance as Dirk and in 2005, some fans of Douglas Adams produced an amateur radio series based on the first book. Their efforts began and were coordinated on the Douglas Adams Continuum website.[9] Three episodes were completed.[10] Apart from the radio broadcasts, Douglas Adams recorded both unabridged and abridged readings of the first novel for the audiobook market.

A publishing company has been seeking the rights to produce a graphic novel adaptation, though art has been removed for legal reasons.[11]

BBC Radio adaptation

Announced on 26 January 2007, BBC Radio 4 commissioned Above the Title Productions to make eighteen 30-minute adaptations of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently books (including The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and the unfinished The Salmon of Doubt), running in three series of six episodes.[12]

The first series began on 3 October 2007 and features Harry Enfield as Dirk, Billy Boyd as Richard, Olivia Colman as Janice, Jim Carter as Gilks, Andrew Sachs as Reg, Felicity Montagu as Susan, Robert Duncan as Gordon, Toby Longworth as the Monk, Michael Fenton Stevens as Michael, Andrew Secombe, Jon Glover, Jeffrey Holland, Wayne Forester and Tamsin Heatley.[13][14][15]

The script for Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was by Dirk Maggs, who also directs, and John Langdon. The show was produced by Maggs and Jo Wheeler. As with the previous Hitchhiker's series, the cd version features greatly expanded episodes.[16] There are a number of structural and detail differences between the radio adaptation and the book, mostly to aid the comprehension of the story when split into six half-hour episodes; this adaptation is a considered step away from the original "Shada" story structure.

Dirk Maggs parted company with Above the Title Productions when he started his own production company, Perfectly Normal Productions and so the project was never completed and the proposed radio series of The Salmon of Doubt remains unmade as of April 2010.

Television adaptation

Main article: Dirk Gently (TV series)

A television version featuring the character was announced during Hitchcon, the first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy convention by Ed Victor, a literary agent who represents Adams' estate, announced that a television adaptation of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was in production. Stephen Mangan played Gently, with Darren Boyd as Macduff and Helen Baxendale as Susan. It was broadcast on BBC Four on 16 December 2010.[17] The hour-long pilot was well-received, leading to 3 further episodes being commissioned.[18] These aired on BBC4 during March 2012.


External links

Novels portal
  • by Douglas Adams, reviewed by Ted Gioia (Postmodern Mystery)

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