When Douglas Adams’ comic mystery novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was published in 1987, it was inevitably compared to his bestselling Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series, and while the book sold well, it never became a phenomenon the way Hitchhiker’s Guide did. It’s an odd bird, this Dirk Gently: a gumshoe adventure with elements of science fiction and philosophy, rendered less riotously than Adams’ best-known work. Both Dirk Gently and its 1988 sequel, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul, are funny, but in a milder way than the Hitchhiker books; and the structure of both novels is loose even by Adams’ compulsively digressive standards, as Adams applies the conventions of the detective genre to everyday pet peeves along with grievous crimes. The Dirk Gently novels lack the whiz-bang grandeur of Hitchhiker’s Guide, even with the occasional presence of time travel, aliens, ghosts, and gods.
The BBC Four TV series Dirk Gently aired its pilot episode in 2010 (the same year that the amped-up Arthur Conan Doyle reinvention Sherlock debuted), followed by three episodes in 2012. As an adaption of the novels, these four Dirk Gently hours are largely inadequate. Stephen Mangan makes a terrific Dirk—with his big teeth, big hair, and big eyes, he resembles a live-action version of an Aardman Animation character—but the plots for the TV show have been simplified dramatically, with the hero investigating only two or three cases per episode, and with the more fantastical elements of the books toned down. The BBC Dirk Gently plays more as a light satire of the modern detective show, twisting the super-intuitive P.I. protagonist into a slobby kook who believes in Zen navigation (“find someone who looks like they know where they’re going, and follow them”) and the quantum theory of deduction (“investigating the fundamental interconnectedness between all things”). Daniel Pemberton’s score has an overbearing “isn’t this fun?” sprightliness, and on the whole, Dirk Gently works fine, if only as a quirky little TV spoof where the lead is prone to pronouncements like, “I fear Susan may be in an indeterminate amount of danger!”
Yet Adams’ spirit survives in Dirk Gently, even if the actual show doesn’t always seem like something he would’ve written himself. Adams’ original idea—about a detective who cracks cases by investigating nearly everything but the clues at hand—survives both in Mangan’s exuberantly daft performance and in Dirk Gently’s visual style, which often emphasizes what Dirk is missing while he focuses on something else. (In the pilot, for example, he’s looking for a lost cat, and in the back of shots throughout, cats occasionally walk behind him.) The heart of the series is Dirk’s partner Richard MacDuff, played by Darren Boyd. A classic Adams-ian sidekick, Boyd’s MacDuff is a mildly flustered everyman who goes along with his friend’s bizarre approach to sleuthing because he has nothing better to do to pass another dull English day, and because he’s amazed by Dirk’s insights into ordinary life (as well as his partner’s phenomenal luck). Though the Dirk Gently books were never as popular as The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, they were infused with the same mix of wonder and skepticism. And the series gets that too: how life can be aggravatingly inexplicable, yet also sublimely right.
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