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Literature / Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is a 1987 novel by Douglas Adams, the first in the Dirk Gently series.

Dirk is a small-scale con artist whose latest scheme is working as a "Holistic Detective", who believes in the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things" and how that means that anything might prove useful in solving the whole cases of his clients — which, the way he sees it, means that he can do anything he likes, even take a three-week tropical vacation, and still charge it to the client as an expense. Of course, by Finagle's Law, somehow every mundane little job he starts off working on in each novel is somehow actually connected to the main plot, and he's the one who has to solve everything.

In this novel, while (supposedly) investigating the disappearance of an old woman's cat, Dirk stumbles into a plot by an extraterrestrial ghost to undo his death with a Time Machine. Too bad that would undo the creation of life on Earth! (It all Makes Sense In Context. Even the robot created to be religiously faithful in place of its creators.)

The novel started as a Recycled Script of Douglas Adams' Doctor Who story "Shada", which got stuck in Development Hell — several characters and locations are recycled from the episode wholesale. It also borrows heavily from Adams' Doctor Who story "City of Death".

There is a second Dirk Gently novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and an unfinished third called The Salmon of Doubt.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency provides examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Professor Chronotis.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Michael Wenton-Weakes kills Gordon Way in the stage play due to the Electric Monk being Adapted Out.
  • Adapted Out: The Electric Monk was left out of the stage play.
  • Ambiguous Robot: The horse. There's a throwaway line about horses being cheap to make but convergent evolution had been previously mentioned, implying that horses also evolved on Salaxala as well as Earth. The horse needs food and water but so does the Electric Monk, who was definitely a robot.
  • Ambiguously Human: Chronotis owns a time-traveling spaceship and his post was created by King George III. Justified in that he originated in an unmade Doctor Who episode where he was a Time Lord.
  • And I'm the Queen of Sheba: The police officer interviewing the cashier over Gordon's death says that if the previous night was ordinary then he's a pimple on the bottom of the Marquess of Queensbury's aunt.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Lampshaded. Richard expresses doubt at Dirk's theory involving ghosts. Dirk points out that he'd also doubted the time travel aspect until that was proven to him.
  • Audio Adaptation:
    • There was a fan made radio show for the Douglas Adams Continuum website in 2005.
    • Dirk Maggs wrote and directed a radio series with Harry Enfield voicing Dirk for BBC4 with Above The Title Productions in 2007.
  • Author Appeal: Adams was fond of computers (he was an early adopter in The '80s) and of the idea of finding mathematical patterns in the natural world. Both concepts feature prominently in the novel.
    • On a smaller scale, Adams regarded Bach's music as the best ever composed. In the novel, Bach's music is literally inhumanly beautiful alien music that was passed to him by Chronotis — who admits to cheating, since "it's more than one man could actually do in a lifetime".
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Dirk's favorite way of getting places he shouldn't be.
  • Beast in the Building: An Electric Monk leaves his horse in Professor Chronotis's bathroom after travelling through a time portal.
  • Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Coleridge's poetry contains alien messages and Bach's music is transcribed from an alien instrument that synthesized music from the motion of the universe itself.
  • Berserk Button: Michael Wenton-Weekes is described as "one of those dangerous people who are soft, squidgy and cowlike provided they have what they want." When the magazine he edited is taken away from him and given a successful Retool, he surprises himself by punching a fist through a window. And later, he kills the new editor in revengenote  which allows the extraterrestrial ghost to take control of his body and use him in his plot...
  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: The driver of a car is horrified when he sees the ghost of his boss appear in front of the car. Gordon, on the other hand, is horrified to see another ghost in the car's passenger seat.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The malfunctioning Electric Monk, that believes in rapidly changing non-sequiturs. One of them being that shooting someone in the chest with a shotgun is a form of greeting.
  • Captain Ersatz;
    • Because of the first book's Recycled Script from "Shada", an abandoned Doctor Who episode, Reg is essentially a retired Time Lord with an unusual TARDIS. Richard and Susan are little more than re-named versions of Chris and Claire, respectively. invoked
    • The alien ghost is basically Scaroth from the Doctor Who episode, "City of Death". Scaroth's spaceship exploded, causing life to develop on Earth. So he waited until a human built him a time machine so he could go back and save his ship.
  • Casual Interstellar Travel: Reg goes to Salaxala to get tan-removing dust to hide the fact he'd spent weeks in ancient Greece to accomplish a magic trick.
  • Casual Time Travel: Reg mainly used his time machine to do magic tricks and watch TV shows that he missed.
  • Character Overlap: The Shada episode of Doctor Who eventually got made, reusing Professor Chronotis.
  • Chekhov's Armoury: Dirk isn't wrong—everything that happens in these books is ultimately important. The Dirk Gently books embody this trope really because they are all about the interconnectedness of everything. Chekov's Armoury isn't just a device Adams used, it's what he based the whole book on. A poem, a conjuring trick, and a stuck couch in the first few chapters are all linked by the end.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Dirk and Richard both encounter a little boy with a swearword-to-sentence ratio approaching 1:1.
  • Colony Ship: The ghost says the Salaxalan ship stopped here on the way to colonize a new planet. He was lying, they were going to colonize Earth.
  • Discovering Your Own Dead Body: Gordon finds his own dead body stuffed into a cupboard.
  • Do Well, But Not Perfect: Dirk hoped that he would basically evoke this when he tried to pose as a Not-So-Phony Psychic while at college. Having been "persuaded" to predict the answers to an exam under automatic writing, and further persuaded to let select people look at it for a fee, all while throwing out a Suspiciously Specific Denial that he never claimed to be psychic anyway, Dirk expected the results (based on nothing more than normal exam prep) to be just accurate enough that people would continue to believe, and just wrong enough that he could continue to deny it all. When the papers he produced turned out to be an exact match to the true exam papers, down to the very comma, he was expelled for cheating and arrested for fraud.
  • Doctor Whomage: Dirk is given The Doctor's role from Shada.
  • Drop Ship: The ship that exploded at the beginning was one. Larger than most examples as it held its mothership's entire crew of nine dozen.
  • The Eeyore: Michael is convinced he's being treated unfairly by the entire universe. Which makes him the ideal host for the alien ghost.
  • Eleventy Zillion: The Electric Monk's valley on the planet Salaxala is roughly one "quingigillion" miles from Salt Lake City.
  • ET Gave Us Wifi: The works of Johann Sebastian Bach are the sounds made by the computers on an alien flying saucer. Oh, and the long-lost second half of "Kubla Khan" was written while Samuel Taylor Coleridge was possessed by the ghost of an alien from said flying saucer, and was designed to subtly convince the reader to give themselves up to possession by said ghost.
  • The Fog of Ages: Professor Chronotis suffers from this.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: After announcing despairingly that the mystery must have a solution that even a child could see, Dirk goes out and asks a child, who immediately gives him what turns out to be the correct solution.
    Child Selected At Random: It's obvious, 'e must 'ave a time machine.
  • Gag Nose: The dean of St. Cedd's College has an enormous nose. Richard is the first person who ever talked to him in seventeen years, three months and two days, five hours, nineteen minutes and twenty seconds (he counted) because everyone else was afraid of laughing right in his face.
  • Genre-Busting: DGHDA is described by its author as a "detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic".
  • Ghostly Chill: Anyone who unknowingly had to sit in a car with a ghost complained about being cold even though the heater was on.
  • Historical In-Joke: The novel ties together the origins of life on earth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem "Kubla Khan", the extinction of the dodo, the career of Buxtehude, and dozens of other epochal or trivial events into an excellent approximation of a coherent plot.
  • Hypno Fool: Dirk hypnotised Richard so that when Dirk gives the right suggestion, Richard will take his clothes off and jump into the canal.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Used by Dirk as part of his Bavarian Fire Drill.
  • In-Series Nickname: Michael Wenton-Weakes is known as "Michael Wednesday Week" because that's when he usually promises to have his work done.
  • Irrevocable Message: While leaving an apologetic message on his girlfriend's answering machine, Richard makes a promise that he immediately realises he can't keep and will only make the situation worse. Which he attempts to revoke by breaking into his girlfriend's apartment (while possessed by a ghost). And he ultimately succeeds, for altogether more convoluted reasons ...
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Whatever Dirk claims to believe in order to extract cash from gullible people invariably turns out to really be true, but always in such a way that he looks bad, sometimes in such a way that he suffers physical or emotional trauma, and never in such a way that he gets the money.
  • Literal-Minded: The Electric Monk killed someone named Gordon Way after misinterpreting a porter telling him to "shoot off".
  • Literary Work of Magic:
    • Samuel Taylor Coleridge gets possessed by an alien ghost, who leaves secret messages in his poetry. Later, Dirk is revealed to be the infamous "Person from Porlock" who disrupted "Kubla Khan" because if completed the poem would've caused the end of the world.
    • The entire works of Johann Sebastian Bach are actually the music of the motions of every particle of matter as read by an alien supercomputer and injected into history by a time traveller because he felt bad about blowing it up.
  • Magicians Are Wizards: Reg performs an impossible magic trick to entertain a restless little girl at a formal dinner. Nobody but Dirk realizes that it's genuinely impossible, and he decides to investigate.
  • The Magic Goes Away: Reg hates using his time machine because doing so always breaks his phone. When he finally gets it fixed permanently, the time machine burns out.
  • Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds: The extinction of the dodos was caused by Reg trying to prevent the extinction of the coelacanth.
  • Mundane Utility: Reg has a time machine that he uses to do magic tricks and catch television shows that he missed.
    Dirk: You have a time machine and you use it for... watching television?
    Reg: Well, I wouldn't use it at all if I could get the hang of the video recorder.
  • Never the Selves Shall Meet: Reg meets himself while doing the salt cellar trick. He finds meeting himself embarrassing and never knows where to look.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: When he was at college, Dirk attempted to trick people into thinking he was a psychic vampire and ended up making them think he was a psychic, mystic, telepathic, fey, clairvoyant, psychosassic vampire bat.
  • No Badge? No Problem!: Dirk does this as part of the workings of his Holistic Detective Agency when he has a mystery that actually interests him rather than one that involves tricking old ladies into letting their cats loose. The local inspector Sergeant Gilks takes a rather dim view of this... along with Dirk's tendencies to be involved in highly peculiar situations that Gilks does not like very much in the first place, as well as his habits of removing or obscuring evidence...
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Gordon Way and WayForward Technologies are thinly-disguised spoofs of Sir Clive Sinclair and Sinclair Research respectively.
  • No-Flow Portal: The time machine's Portal Door can block prehistoric Earth's toxic atmosphere from coming through.
  • No Name Given: The alien ghost and the Electric Monk.
  • No Such Thing as Alien Pop Culture: The planet Salaxala has TV shows similar to ours.
  • Not-So-Phony Psychic: When he was in university, Dirk posed as a psychic, was uncannily right, and got arrested for it. He now spends a lot of time insisting to people who were there that he's not psychic. Usually they don't believe him and his reputation often precedes him. Played with, as Dirk built his reputation for being a psychic at university by repeatedly and publicly insisting he was not, in any way, shape, or form, a psychic. Which nobody had ever actually suspected him of being until he started denying it.
    • This is Lamp Shaded in the radio dramatization when Dirk astonishes another character by making a prediction that almost immediately comes true.
      Dirk: It's just my depressingly accurate powers of prediction.
      Police Officer: You could clean up betting on the ponies with that.
      Dirk: That's the depressing part — I can't!
  • The Nudifier: Dirk hypnotised Richard to strip off his clothes and jump into a canal when he hears a certain command phrase.
  • One-Steve Limit: Averted with Gordon's sister Susan and secretary Susan at the office.
  • Only Sane Man: Richard Macduff. Richard is the only one who finds a horse randomly appearing in Reg's bathroom a bit peculiar. He's also the only one who notices that the way his sofa is stuck in his staircase is geometrically impossible. He fails to notice that Reg's magic trick is impossible though, preferring to assume there's a more mundane explanation.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: A ghost's intangibility (along with its visibility) flickers in and out, allowing them to manipulate objects only at certain times.
  • Our Time Machine Is Different: Reg's time machine is his entire office. The controls are an abacus, and the whole thing stops working after he hired someone to fix the phone.
  • Peekaboo Corpse: Gordon discovers his own corpse in a cupboard. And faints.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: Dirk invented the word "psychosassic" and when asked, he would deny that it meant anything at all.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Dirk never seems to have much money — a Running Gag is his secretary quitting over not getting paid — and most certainly never gets paid by his clients. He manages to stay in his office, flat, etc, through arranging the situation so that it would be more inconvenient to actually eject him or force him to pay than just let him be and hope that he'll pay some day.
  • Phone Call from the Dead: A guy makes a car phone call and starts talking into the answering machine, then gets killed. Just later his ghost tries to communicate by talking through the phone, which is recorded on the answering machine as well.
  • Plug 'n' Play Technology: The time machine can automatically adapt itself to give information and receive instructions from any appropriate device connected to it, or even placed near it. Its owner says that this feature probably comprises more of the device's workings than those required to perform its actual function.
  • Police Are Useless: played straight for most of the police who appear in the book (especially the scene where Dirk is able to Bavarian Fire Drill his way into Richard's apartment), but averted with Sgt. Gilks, who is wise to Dirk's tricks. At one point Gilks turns away while talking to Dirk in Richard's apartment, allowing Dirk to steal the answering machine tape only for Gilks to reveal that he had memorized everything that was on Richard's desk and only turned away to see what Dirk would try to steal to see what was important.
  • Portal Door: When Professor Chronotis's time-traveling study is active, the bathroom door will lead to a door in a convenient wall, or cliff face.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: The Salaxalan ship in Earth's orbit is still functional after four billion years.
  • Religious Robot: The Electric Monks, which were designed as a labour-saving device that would believe things so that their owners didn't need to; a malfunctioning one ends up involved in the plot.
  • Retroactive Preparation;
    • Reg pulls a salt shaker out of an ancient Greek pot by going back in time and putting it there.
    • Richard gets a reservation in a popular restaurant by going back in time to make a booking.
  • Ripple-Effect-Proof Memory: More prevalent here than usual; you have to lead a very sheltered life to never notice little discrepancies between your memories and reality. Reg says that if they alter the past, they'll remember doing it but everybody else will remember the new timeline.
  • Rubber-Band History: Samuel Taylor Coleridge finished writing "Kubla Khan" and nobody's ever heard of Johann Sebastian Bach's music. By the end of the novel, both of these have become our familiar versions of history. There's also a cautionary anecdote about inadvertent time travel resulting in the extinction of the dodo.
  • San Dimas Time: There's a telephone in the time machine, which can be used to straightforwardly communicate with the present. (On the other hand, there's a sequence where a character goes on a six-week trip into the past, and returns moments after he left.)
  • Schmuck Bait: Dirk told his fellow students he wasn't psychic, no matter how much money they offered him to predict the upcoming exam questions. Subverted, because he unintentionally predicted exactly what the questions would be.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: There was a stage play in 1991, titled Dirk.
  • Shout-Out: A few to Adams' other series:
    • Richard asks Dirk if he always carries a towel around.
    • Reg says that moving through time and space is closer than going to the chemist's—the opposite comparison that the Guide makes, "I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space, listen..."
  • The Sleepless: Ghosts don't seem to need sleep but can faint when they find their own bodies.
  • Space Age Stasis: Electric Monks seem to have been in use for billions of years. The Salaxalan Colony Ship had some and they're still used in modern day, unless Reg was visiting Salaxala in the past.
  • Stable Time Loop: The delivery men used the Portal Door of the time machine to maneuver Richard's sofa onto the otherwise impossible stairs while they're three weeks in the past.
  • Starfish Aliens: Living members of the alien race never appear, but the description in the opening scene reveals they have purple crinkly skin, a single eye but multiple mouths and noses, and a variable number of legs, but always a prime. The reason the Electric Monk looks exactly like a Caucasian human is so that no-one could possibly mistake it for a real person.
  • Starfish Robots: As mentioned above, the Electric Monk is one from the perspective of its starfish alien creators and looks human by coincidence.
  • Steven Ulysses Perhero: Albert Ross
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: Deliberately invoked by Dirk at university. By carefully denying the most extraordinary things, he convinces his fellow students that he's a psychic, mystic, telepathic, clairvoyant, psychosassic, vampire bat.
  • Take That!: The Electric Monk is a deliberate slap in the face to all organized religion.note  The deluxe model in particular is "capable of believing things they wouldn't believe in Salt Lake City."
  • Talking in Your Sleep: How Dirk's supposed psychic powers manifested.
  • Temporal Paradox: Lampshaded by Professor Urban Chronotis:
    "If the Universe came to an end every time there was some uncertainty about what had happened in it, it would never have got beyond the first picosecond. And many of course don’t. It’s like a human body, you see. A few cuts and bruises here and there don’t hurt it. Not even major surgery if it’s done properly. Paradoxes are just the scar tissue. Time and space heal themselves up around them and people simply remember a version of events which makes as much sense as they require it to make."
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: Holistic Detective Agency disclaims any resemblance to real people "living, dead, or wandering the night in ghostly torment".
  • Time Abyss: The alien ghost has been around since before life on Earth began. He is understandably unhinged.
  • Time and Relative Dimensions in Space: The time machine seems to be able to go anywhere, including Earth orbit and planets in other solar systems.
  • Timey-Wimey Ball: It's possible to change the past but time travel allows Richard's sofa to be put on the stairs three weeks in the past, making a Stable Time Loop.
  • Trigger Phrase: "My old maiden aunt who lived in Winnipeg." Hearing this phrase at one point in the story causes Richard to remove all his clothing and dive into a canal—because Dirk has hypnotised him to do so, as it turns out.
  • Unfinished Business: Gordon is able to move on after finishing his phone call to his sister Susan that he was killed in the middle of.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Unless you are quite familiar with the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge ("Kubla Khan" and the story of the "Person from Porlock" in particular), you will not understand the ending at all. To make perfect sense, the novel also requires you to remember minor details from early in the book that eventually become major plot points (as mentioned above under Chekhov's Armoury), and several clues are left to the reader to connect themselves.
  • Wham Line:
    "I would not be surprised to discover that the accident your poor tormented soul out there is trying to reverse is the very thing which started life on this planet!"
  • What Have We Ear?: One of the conjuring tricks Reg does.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Or, technically, be dead and floating around as a ghost forever.
  • The X of Y: Richard used to be in a band called The Reasonably Good Band. They wanted to be The Beatles of the early eighties.