Jul 26 2008 2:23pm

From Herring to Marmalade: the perfect plot of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

You know those polished wooden egg puzzles that people buy for you, the kind that are beautiful when they're an egg but that fall to part into shards that seem impossible for mortals to reassemble? Then maybe after a lot of trying suddenly all these impossible three dimensional jigsaw pieces suddenly slot together and you have a lovely fragile egg again? Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency always reminds me of one of those.  

I didn't read it for ages. It wasn't that I didn't like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, it was just that I thought the plot had rather fallen apart in the later books. Indeed, the "throw in everything including the kitchen sink and St Anselm's ontological proof of the existence of God" style of the Hitchhiker books had lent the series high initial energy but did not lead to continuous plot, or even necessarily making sense. They were inventive and amusing, but he seemed to be juggling too many balls and letting a lot of them drop. I wasn't in a hurry for more Douglas Adams in 1987. I didn't get around to picking Dirk Gently up until Emmet insisted on lending it to me in the mid-nineties.


I read it for the first time on the train, the long six hour (if nothing went wrong) train journey between Cambridge and Lancaster. I read it with a five year old Sasha reading Tintin and Asterix comic books beside me and asking (admirably rarely) if we were nearly at Crewe yet and (regrettably frequently) to explain a pun to him. (There's nothing like discovering how much sheer context and world knowledge a pun requires like explaining the puns in Asterix to a five year old.) Despite the inauspicious circumstances, Dirk Gently kept making me giggle, whereupon I resolutely refused to read the funny bits aloud. "You'll want to read this yourself one day," I said, and time proved me right. When he read it, aged about twelve, he loved it.

I'm going to give you one example, the one that had me laughing so helplessly on the train that people were turning around to look and poor five year old Sasha was embarrassed to be seen with me. Dirk Gently has a holistic detective agency of the kind that you'd expect to find in a Sheckley novel. Earlier, his secretary has torn out the middle of the dictionary to fit it into a drawer.

"Luckily," he said, "You have come to exactly the right place with your interesting problem, for there is no such word as impossible in my dictionary. In fact," he added, brandishing the abused book, "Everything between herring and marmalade appears to be missing." 

It's the timing that's so beautiful, and the unlikeliness of the words. 

What brings me back to it isn't the funny bits, though some of them remain funny long after they've stopped being surprising. (Dirk's later offered a herring, and says there's no such word in his dictionary... and all of this is build up and foreshadowing for something that is in our world but not in theirs, yet.) What's beautiful about it is the way the plot looks as if it's bumbling along tossing elements into the blender and making a big messy stew, just like Hitchhiker, and then suddenly it gives a glorp and assembles itself into a perfect precise layer cake. In retrospect, every element of the book makes perfect glorious sense and needs to be there. It all fits together, from the way the sofa won't go either up or down the stairs to the appalling dinner conversation about music on Radio Three. Things that look like jokes and asides are actually all set up. Every piece fits with every other piece like a perfect machine. It's almost impossible to summarise or synopsise because of this. If you wanted to tell someone about it you'd have to say "Well, there's this time machine. And the person from Porlock. And ghosts. And Bach was written by aliens. And it's SF and very funny and it all totally makes sense eventually." I admire it no end.

There are very few other examples of books I re-read to glory in the way they're put together. There's Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, and John James's Not For All the Gold in Ireland and perhaps -- another time travel story -- Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates.


Arachne Jericho
1. arachnejericho
I love the Dirk Gently series so much (maybe a bit too much, but it came during a time when I was on an Agatha Christie kick. Adams managed to end that spectacularly). It's great to see a review of it on You put so well the things that make me love 'em.

What do you think of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul?

... actually it's probably a bit much to call it a series. There are only two books, and the third one is forever unfinished because Adams is gone. Part of it appears in The Salmon of Doubt.
Kate Nepveu
2. Kate Nepveu
Besides admiring its construction, I also found the characters in _Dirk Gently's_ much more emotionally engaging than in the Hitchhiker's books.

For those who like audiobooks, Adams does a nice job of reading this one (and all of his books, except that he can't do an American accent, which is a problem in the sequel).
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
I don't like The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul as much. It has the same manic inventiveness, and it has some wonderful moments, but I have a problem with believing in the gods. I should read it again, I don't remember it that well.

In French, the title translates as "The Beauty of Airports", which is just perfect, as the (wonderful) English title wouldn't work as well.
Arachne Jericho
4. arachnejericho
I like crazy things involving gods (though obviously Neil Gaiman would show all such other things all up later in American Gods) so I didn't mind them in TLDTOTS.

The Beauty of Airports... awesome title.
Laurel Amberdine
5. amberdine
I still use Gently's "follow someone who looks like they know where they're going" as a navigation strategy while driving.

As for the plot breakdown of the Hitchhiker's series... yeah. One of the later books was at the top of the allowed-books list for a high school book report. My local library's copy had been swiped, so this was perfect!

My whole plot summary got circled and marked down with "This doesn't make any sense." Like that was my fault.
David Keck
6. dkeck
Even Dirk's name is kinda wonderful.

(It's been a long while -- which book has the stroll along the street with the streetlights popping off?)
Jo Walton
7. bluejo
Amberdine: That's the strategy that had my aunt follow a British Rail van when looking for the station in Wigan... follow it out of town and into a suburban housing development where it parked and the driver went home, that is.
Clifton Royston
8. CliftonR
Jo, I just wanted to let you know, if you don't already, that you're an utterly fabulous essayist.

Each of your essays here, starting with the essay on the joys of re-reading, has made me go "Wow!" Sensawunda, indeed.

(I'm definitely going to hunt for that Jack Womack book, after your review.)
Jason Jones
9. DocJones
In case there are any fans of the book out there that don't know about it, the BBC did an excellent radio version of it. You can find it here or do what I did and check your favorite bittorrent site for the whole thing at once.

It's a fantastic version and follows the text of the book very closely. I never noticed much missing in it at all.
Liza .
10. aedifica
@dkeck: That was Teatime.

Generally: Perhaps I read these books too young--I've always taken for granted that they would be what they are, rather than seeing them as anything surprisingly good. (Yes, I think they're good books and I enjoy them greatly, but, well, that's just how they are. For me the surprise would be if they weren't good.)
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Aedifica: It's better that way than the other way around. There are books I used to love that I'v outgrown, and books I can't be objective about because my original feelings about them overpower my adult reasoning.
Ray Radlein
12. RayRadlein
I was wibbling on about Dirk Gently just last night on Daily Kos; specifically, about how much of the novel was clearly repurposed from two of Adams' Doctor Who scripts, "Shada" and "City of Death" (both of which starred Julian Glover, oddly enough).
Paul Andinach
13. anobium
If memory serves, the villain in "Shada" was Christopher Neame, not Julian Glover. In the play-for-voices remake, the same part was played by Andrew Sachs, which I thought was terrible miscasting as he should obviously have been Professor Chronotis.

I note with interest that the BBC play-for-voices adaptation of Dirk Gently DocJones mentions above was apparently cast by somebody who agrees with me...
Ray Radlein
14. RayRadlein
Your memory appears to serve better than mine.

I could have sworn that it was Julian Glover, but it has been almost a decade probably since I last watched "Shada," and all of the online resources I can find agree with you.
Marissa Lingen
15. Mris
I'm with you, Aedifica: I read these when I was 12, so they formed part of my idea of what this genre is/does.

I'm glad you wrote this, Jo, because I don't think I've read them since I was 14 or so, and it's probably getting to be time.
Madeline Ferwerda
16. MadelineF
I also love the "follow someone" method of navigation, and when I add a bit of scheming to it it works even better... Like, I was thinking about going to the BevMo at Jack London Square in Oakland, and every route I'd tried involved a dozen stoplights, and then I'm like "Hm, it's right next to the Port of Oakland, and here's a truck with a 'Union Yes' sticker on it..." Indeed, that fellow showed me a great route.

I also love the couch in the stairway. Anyone who has moved knows that feeling. It would be an excellent screensaver.
Fred Coppersmith
17. FCoppersmith
I was amused, but also largely underwhelmed, by the first Dirk Gently book. It didn't have quite the same whiff of "I'd really rather be thinking smart things about computers and such than writing novels" that I think plagued some of Adams' later books (Mostly Harmless especially), but I also wouldn't put it on the same level as the earlier Hitchhiker's books.
Doug Angel
18. ShadowWrought
Thanks for reminding me how great the Dirk Gently books were. I read the Hitchhiker's books early on and was excited when Dirk Gently came out. But I didn't make it through. I would get frustrated by how he kept flipping between these disparate characters with nothing really happening, so i'd make it a few chaopters and put it down. I did that, I'm sorry to say, a couple, few times.

Then I finally plugged my way through and what a tremendous reward. Everything fit and I was left marveling at his work.

Thanks for the reminder!
Ian Tregillis
19. ITregillis
Okay, I'm coming to this particular essay party about 8 months late. How did I miss this entry the first time around? Sigh.

Anyway, I'm so glad to see Dirk Gently getting some love here. I think all of the critiques here of Adams's style, both strengths and weaknesses, are on the money. Still, the Dirk Gently couch gag is my all-time favorite Douglas Adams bit. The set up and the reveal are perfectly tuned to my sense of humor.
Kate Nepveu
20. Sunolet
I just read this book and it quickly became my favorite, but when I got to Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, I kinda liked it, but it felt more like I was trudging through it. It's quite unfortunate Adams died, I would have been interested to flip through the Salmon of Doubt
Kate Nepveu
21. Penty
I have read this book three times now. I love it, but I still don't understand the major plot-point of the poem. How is it that preventing the second part of the poem being written results in saving the earth? The ghost "wrote" the instructions, and the ghost is also the one executing the instructions. So deleting the instructions does not delete the knowledge; or am I missing something?
Kate Nepveu
23. neroden
I have realized that there is a recurring theme in Douglas Adams: the extreme significance of random chance in the universe.

It's a subtle theme, but played out in a million ways. And many people are unwilling to accept it, as noted by the grade on the book report mentioned by a previous commentator!

Anyway, Dirk Gently is the first book to state this theme *explicitly* -- Dirk Gently explains it outright, early on, regarding the business with the test questions. Which does *not* actually tie into anything else in the book...

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