Book review: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently #1)Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this book when it was originally published in paperback in 1988. That was literally half a lifetime ago, as I was 24 at the time. Over the last few years I’ve been returning to some of the books I read in my teens and 20s, to see how they resonate with me now that I am older, if not entirely wiser.

The first thing to strike me upon re-reading this book 27 years later is that I could recall nothing of the story. I mean, yes, I knew there was a detective named Dirk Gently, I knew it was a bit weird and froopy in that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sort of way, but I could not recall any real plot details at all, nor any of the characters. I vaguely remembered something about cats. Cats are mentioned several times, though they play no significant role in the novel. I think I just like cats and projected.

The plot is a convoluted affair that unfolds like some complicated contraption you can’t recognize until it’s finished unfolding itself. You then stand back and say, “Aha, so that’s what it is!” Despite the narrative being at turns mysterious and then more mysterious still, Adams keeps events moving along briskly and the characters are more nuanced than in Hitchhiker’s, while still apt to say clever things we could only wish to come up with in our daily conversations. Eventually the mysteries come clear–the story is a time travel/ghost/romantic comedy of sorts that follows a few very peculiar days in the life of a software engineer who can’t remove a stuck sofa from his staircase–and all ends well, given the previously unrevealed cosmic scale of the stakes at hand.

What impresses me most about the book, and this may seem an odd thing to say in context of Adams, is how mature the writing is. There are ideas on the interplay of math, science, art, philosophy, mortality and more here, handled with wit and grace and occasionally genuine pathos (the scenes of Gordon Way after his meeting with the electric monk stand out vividly in their depiction of despair and sadness). I suspect when I was 24 most of this was lost on me, as I was expecting a Hitchhiker’s retread, which Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is very much not. Unfulfilled, my brain apparently flushed nearly all memory of the book, to better make room for all that great late 80s music and fashion. I forgot Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency but remember parachute pants.

I very much recommend this novel for those not needing their stories filled with car chases and instant gratification, or for anyone who has ever been flummoxed by seemingly immovable furniture.

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