Douglas Adams famously said, “It takes an awful long time to not write a book.” I can’t recall which book he was referring to at the time, but it very well could have been the long awaited third Dirk Gently novel, The Salmon of Doubt, still unfinished at his untimely death at the age of 49 in May of 2001.
I had been waiting for the third Dirk Gently novel since the second novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, was published in 1998. Fourteen years later, a year after Adams’ death, 84 pages of fragments of the unfinished novel were published by Harmony Books as part of a posthumous collection titled The Salmon of Doubt. This review will focus solely on the Dirk Gently material. The only thing I will say about the other two-thirds of the collection is that it consists of articles, speeches, interviews, and a couple of short stories that had been previously published. Suffice to say that these are all worthwhile reading if you are an Adams fan.
As for the unfinished novel fragments, I will paraphrase Adams (a.k.a. blatantly steal his brilliant quote for my own purposes), “It takes an awful long time to not read a book.” When I got my copy of The Salmon of Doubt in 2002, I read everything in it except the unfinished novel fragments. Those I could not bring myself to read. Once I had read them, there would be no more, nothing new for me to read from Adams – ever. So I set the book aside until I happened to notice that this month’s Scide Splitters was due out on Towel Day (an international celebration of Douglas Adams’ life and works. If you are not sure what Towel Day is, grab a towel, look it up, and join the celebration.)
The question I have been wondering all these years has been, are these story fragments any good? Will they make me laugh, or will I be disappointed and angry with the publisher for taking advantage of my fandom? The good news for Dirk Gently fans is that much of The Salmon of Doubt displays the hilariously brilliant prose we came to expect from the first two books. If you have not read those (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency & The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul), I strongly recommend that you read them first. You will have a much better feel for where Adams might have taken this story (feel, not to be confused with having a clue about where the plot is going, since Adams’ plots were anything but predictable). And of course, if you didn’t like the first two, there is no point in reading fragments of the third. Incidentally, I consider Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, to be Adams’ finest novel.
So what are these fragments exactly? The editor’s note at the beginning of the collection explains that these were taken from three periods that Adams had worked on the novel (early, middle & late). We are told that the editor selected the strongest material from each period and assembled them in the most logical order. I will note the source period as I go through the eleven chapters that make up The Salmon of Doubt, such as it is.
Before I go into what you will find in the fragments, it might be best to give you an idea of what Adams intended the book to be. From a fax to his editor (included in the collection), Adams writes, “Dirk Gently, hired by someone he never meets, to do a job that is never specified, starts following people at random. His investigations lead him to Los Angeles, through the nasal membranes of a rhinoceros, to a distant future dominated by estate agents and heavily armed kangaroos…”
The first chapter is the only one that comes from the early period, and to be honest, I think it is the weakest. It involves someone named Dave who has named almost everything in DaveLand after himself. After surveying his world from a hilltop, he attempts to hang-glide across the valley in a glider of his own design. Other than this probably being the distant future dominated by estate agents that Adams referred to, it has no apparent connection to the rest of the story.
Chapters two through seven are the longest continuous portion of the novel. These are taken from the middle period and are all told from Dirk Gently’s point of view. They flow with the creativity and wit one expects from a Dirk Gently novel. In fact, I was enjoying chapter two so much that I seriously considered stopping and saving the rest for the future. This section opens with Dirk in his rundown office, lamenting the sad state of his business, when a woman arrives asking if he will help find her lost cat, or more accurately, the lost half of her otherwise normal cat. The dialog is laugh out loud funny and the situation insanely Adamsesque.
Next, Dirk finds that someone has been depositing $5,000 per week into his bank account. He has no idea who his client is, nor what mystery he has been hired to solve. So he decides that the best way to approach this is to follow someone at random and see where the interconnectedness of all things takes him. It eventually leads him to Los Angeles.
Chapter eight comes from the later period and involves a woman in suburban LA getting carjacked. I don’t know how Adams intended to weave this into the plot, but stitching together seemingly unrelated events was always one of his strong suits.
In the next chapter, also from the later period, we learn that a rhinoceros has been stolen and subsequently goes on a rampage, as told through the point of view of the Rhino. Story threads start to come together in chapters ten (middle period) and eleven (late period). While being chauffeured in New Mexico, Dirk finds clues in the form of road signs and a truck transporting a Rhino.
And then the story is over all too soon and without resolution. I don’t think that there was a single page during which I wasn’t keenly and painfully aware that this would end prematurely. And therein lies the trouble with The Salmon of Doubt. All the laughter it generates is overcast by a sadness that comes from the awareness that this is the end. There will be no more. Never-the-less, it is a must read for Adams fans, and The Salmon of Doubt fragments are well worth the cost of the book.
The Salmon of Doubt is still available new in all formats; hardcover, trade paper, mass market, digital, take your pick. It is also worth noting that BBC America will be broadcasting an eight-episode series based on the Dirk Gently novels this fall. The cast will include Samuel Barnett, Elijah Wood and Hannah Marks. Based on what I’ve read, don’t expect this to follow the books very closely. The best I think we can hope for is that they capture the spirit of Dirk Gently.
Happy Towel Day!