Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Best Fictional Detective

The year was 1981. I was in 8th grade. In science class, I noticed the girl that sat next to me.

No, that’s not a partial sentence.

I noticed the girl that sat next to me. She was cute; she was my first crush, I’d say. She was enough to take my mind off the fact that my 8th-grade-science teacher had a glass eye and would not look directly at the person he was addressing, which meant that you were never sure you were being called on.

As a way of talking to the girl, I struck up a conversation that seemed to me to be a sure bet. There was not much in the way of sure bets for a geeky overweight 8th grader who wore glasses and wore pretty much the same sweatshirt almost every day of the week. But this was close, since my conversational opener was “What are you reading?”

That seemed a sure thing because I, too, liked to read. Loved to read. Always had and since then still do. And here was a cute girl who also read. That was a rarity in my world, since cute girls mostly did not read and mostly did not respond to me when I asked them questions, as this girl did.

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” she said.

We actually had a conversation or two about that book, and she convinced me to read it. It helped that the book sounded interesting – a funny sci-fi book – but I’d have read anything she told me to do.

That girl has long since faded into obscurity. But the book she told me to read led me to read the sequels, and ultimately onto another book written by its author, Douglas Adams. Which finally – finally – brings me around to the topic this time, which has, to quote Mr. Adams, a Scottish dagger feel to it. Because the book I ultimately read contained the best fictional detective, Dirk Gently.

If you have not read Doug Adams’ books, or if you have but didn’t like them, you won’t understand this article and you won’t understand what makes Dirk Gently such a great fictional detective. What makes him great, in brief, is he’s not only a fictional character, as a fictional character, his detecting also appears to be fictional, as well.

Dirk Gently, born Svlad Cjelli in the books, is a private investigator who works, he says, in a holistic manner. That leads him to investigate the interconnectedness of all things, and to solve mysteries in the most unorthodox ways possible: setting policement to guard a jammed-up sofa with a hammer. Hypnotizing his client into going for a swim. Confusing little old ladies with stories of Schrodinger’s cat.

None of that seems to make sense, and on the first read through, the book starring Dirk Gently did not seem to, either, telling Dirk’s investigation of a ghost, a murder, a horse getting into a house, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Xanadu, and his client (Richard) trying to keep things going with his girlfriend, all of which Dirk manages with aplomb, and aplomb appears to be the right word.

Dirk Gently might be one of the most fascinating characters ever created for a book. He has great lines:

Let's think the unthinkable, let's do the undoable, let's prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all”

He has great methods. Struggling with the problem at one point, he scribbles some gibberish on a piece of paper, and then points out to his client that he’s reduced an intractable, insoluble mystery to a mere language problem. An intractable, insoluble language problem, he admits, but still…

And, he has had more than one adventure. Although Douglas Adams’ unfortunate passing left us with a shortage of Dirk Gently Adventures, Dirk did have one more case beyond the first book, as in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul he grappled with the problem of what to do with Norse gods who have long since become redundant, while also grappling with the problem of what to do about his cleaning lady and her refusal to clean his refrigerator. And a calculator which answers most problems with the phrase “A suffusion of yellow.”

Keep your Sherlock Holmes, your Hercule Poirot, your… who else is a fictional detective? My love for Doug Adams’ creation may have been started by a crush in 8th grade, but it would not have lasted all these years just based on that. Instead, it was kept going by this kind of logic:

“Sir Isaac Newton, renowned inventor of the milled-edge coin and the catflap!" [Says Dirk].

"The what?" said Richard.

"That catflap! A device of the utmost cunning, perspicuity and invention. It is a door within a door, you see, a ..."

"Yes," said Richard, "there was also the small matter of gravity."

"Gravity," said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, "yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered." [Drops a pencil, watches it fall to the floor.]"You see?" he said, "They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention."

1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

I think I still have my hardcover with both Dirk Gently books in it. I should reread that at some point along with the Hitchhiker's Guide ones--at least the first four anyway.