1 February 2017

Book Review: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

Title: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently #1)
Author: Douglas Adams
Originally published in 1987

Source: I read the 1989 Pan Books edition that I found in the school library. 

Blurb from the author's official website: Dirk Gently is a private detective who is more interested in telekinesis, quantum mechanics and lunch than fiddling around with fingerprint powder, so his investigations tend to produce startling and unexpected results. A simple search for a missing cat uncovers a bewildered ghost, a secret time-traveller, and the devastating secret that lies behind the whole human history and threatens to bring it to a premature end. Sadly the cat dies.

Dinara's Rule #1 for getting a good book rating: Never kill the cat! For no story, no matter how captivating or fascinating, justifies the suffering and the eventual death of an animal, even a fictional one. Even if the said animal died peacefully. And especially, if Erwin Schrödinger is somehow involved. Douglas Adams broke this rule, an indiscretion that will have ramifications when it comes to rating this otherwise delightful novel.

Hello, and welcome to the review of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I read this book so that I could watch the Netflix show it's based on without having to feel guilty about not reading the source material first. I also just finished watching the show, and we will talk about it in due time. Now, to the book review!

The founder of a software company gets shot, a young programmer breaks into his girlfriend's apartment, and a horse has been found in the bathroom of a Cambridge professor. Furthermore, there is a strange, invisible, intangible force that is making people act out of character and do all sorts of questionable things.

At a first glance, all the stuff that happens seems perfectly random. Strange? Yes. But completely random. After all, what does a wandering horse have to do with a dead CEO? But it takes a special kind of detective - a holistic detective - to know that everything is connected, and that nothing is ever random. Enter Dirk Gently.

Having an entire book named after you, undoubtedly puts a lot of pressure on the character, and adds a whole nother level of performance anxiety. Which may explain why Dirk Gently doesn't show up for the whole first third of the book (it's true, I did the math). Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

On the contrary, while Gently was hiding in his dusty old office and not taking part in the plot, other characters were doing a great job preparing me for his arrival, by telling amazing stories about him and his many abilities. So that when Mr. Gently finally graced the page with his presence, I couldn't hide my excitement. "Look, it's Dirk Gently! I wonder what he's gonna do."

But as a superhero movie that has been hyped up way too much before its release, Mr. Gently disappoints. Is he funny? Is he weird? Is he a con artist? Yes, yes, and hell, yes! But is he colourful? Is he relatable? And most importantly, is he consistent? Well, no. Not really. When we first meet him, he is scamming old ladies and not giving a horse's behind about things like paying his secretary salary. 

But the second he gets involved in the case of the dead CEO and the bathroom horse, he gets himself a new personality, and actually starts caring about stuff. He oscillates between whimsical and serious, and seems to have a problem with deciding what kind of detective wants to be: the kind that scams his clients or the kind that wants to fix glitches in the Universe. He is smart, though. Undoubtedly, the smartest person in the book.

Which isn't saying much, since none of the people that we meet here aren't particularly bright. And again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The characters here are not players, they're chess pieces in a great game played by the Universe. Who does the Universe play chess with, you ask? No idea, it was just an allegory. The point is that the characters are non-essential. They are victims of the circumstances surrounding them. Events unfold around them, without being affected by them. 

Dirk Gently is the only one who understands this, but he still follows the direction the Universe gives him. Until one moment, when he actually does something that affects the Universe instead. Come to think of it, he only makes his appearance, when things get really weird. He is only there to untangle the mess that the Universe has created.

This story is not about Gently. Nor is it about the dead CEO or the horse. It's about the "interconnectedness of all things". It's about the invisible threads that are attached to every person and every event, in such a way that one minuscule change will set off a chain reaction of cosmic proportions. And this is where the book really shines. 

Adams achieves something that few authors (that I know of) manage: he creates a fleeting and hard-to-define feeling of something being off. This feeling of something strange and unknown lingering in the air. You don't know what it is, but you can feel it, this tension, like electricity. And this feeling is always present which makes you feel as if everything in the Universe really is connected.  

It is something that Adams achieves - in part - through his use of language. If you read my reviews, you may know that I have a soft spot for "dreamy" language; language that makes you feel what the characters are feeling. 

Douglas was the master of the absurd and the whimsical. And Dirk Gently is one of the funniest books I have read. It's witty and absurd, and the language is sharp. But in all the absurdity, and all the humour of Dirk Gently, there is something more, some deeper layer that contains questions about things like fate, causality and humanity's place in the Universe. You know deep, existential stuff.  

And that's what I love about this book. I love that it's so imaginative and different. I love that it can be both funny and existential at the same time. And I love how Adams blends fantasy with reality so seamlessly. 

My rating:
Plot: 5 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 3 stars 
Language: 5 stars 

Minus 1 star for killing the cat (you didn't think I'd forget about that, did you?), which gives us the mean rating of 4 stars. 

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