Missteps obscure Adams’ quirky comic genius in ‘The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul’

September 4, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 4, 2012

Douglas Adams is best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, his comic romp through space and time featuring the hapless Earthling Arthur Dent and a cast of zany alien friends and enemies.

Adams died in 2001 at the age of 49, having only completed seven novels. Five of those books belonged to, as the tagline goes, the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s trilogy; the other two concerned a dissolute London detective.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, published in 1987, was a marvelous book. It featured a smattering of science fiction and a bunch of eccentric characters and unusual events, plus, of course, a great deal of humor. The central storyline involved contemporary Londoners with whom the reader could more or less identify. The new book had some things in common with the Hitchhiker’s tales, but it was different enough to establish that Adams could still entertain readers while striking out in new directions.

A year later, the British novelist published The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, a follow-up with Gently as one of its main characters. I read the book years ago and felt that it missed the mark more often than not. Unfortunately, a recent rereading of the novel confirmed that impression.

The two people at the heart of Tea-Time are Gently, a short, stout and undisciplined detective, and Kate Schechter, a widowed American travel writer. The novel starts as Schechter is trying to catch a flight to Oslo; she is thwarted by a number of factors, the last of which is a very large and very odd man who is trying to board a plane without ticket, money or identification. A few sentences later, there is a mysterious explosion, which kills no one but sends Schechter to the hospital.

Shortly afterward, Gently wakes up hours late for a job with a rare and much-needed client. Said individual turns out to be late himself, having lost his head in, well, mysterious circumstances. That death turns out to be connected, improbably, to the explosion that injured Schechter.

Gently is a sleuth who is guided as much, or possibly more, by intuition than any traditional methods of detection. He offers this explanation to another character:

“Every particle in the universe,” continued Dirk, warming to his subject and beginning to stare a bit, “affects every other particle, however faintly or obliquely. Everything interconnects with everything. The beating of a butterfly’s wings in China can affect the course of an Atlantic hurricane. If I could interrogate this table leg in a way that made sense to me, or to the table leg, then it could provide me with the answer to any question about the universe. I could ask anybody I liked, chosen entirely by chance, any random question I cared to think of, and their answer, or lack of it, would in some way bear upon the problem to which I am seeking a solution. It is only a question of knowing how to interpret it. Even you, whom I have met entirely by chance, probably know things that are vital to my investigation, if only I knew what to ask you, which I don’t, and if only I could be bothered to, which I can’t.”

Much later in the book, Gently is scouring the streets of London for cigarettes and finds a gas station that was just robbed at gunpoint.

The attendant was apparently not badly injured, but he was still losing blood from a wound in his arm, having hysterics and being treated for shock, and no one would sell Dirk any cigarettes. They simply weren’t in the mood.

“You could buy cigarettes in the blitz,” protested Dirk. “People took a pride in it. Even with the bombs falling and the whole city ablaze you could still get served. Some poor fellow, just lost two daughters and a leg, would still say ‘Plain or filter-tipped?’ if you asked him.”

“I expect you would, too,” muttered a white-faced young policeman.

“It was the spirit of the age,” said Dirk.

“Bug off,” said the policeman.

And that, thought Dirk to himself, was the spirit of this.

He and Schechter wind up consorting with Norse gods who assemble by a London train station. Ultimately, Gently tries to right an injustice that has been committed against the gods; for her part, Schechter tags along with a deity as he independently seeks to address the same matter as Gently. Their efforts, against a pair of unlikely villains, don’t seem to work out at first. And yet, oddly, a number of things fall into place…

The journey contains a number of fun moments, but it all adds up to a rather frustrating experience. Adams stories frequently involve rather hapless main characters, but Tea-Time seems to take matters to a new level. Gently puts together enough shrewd leaps (logical and not) to apprehend the situation as events come to a head, but he seems essentially incidental to the outcome.

Schechter begins the story as an independent woman, but her narrative purpose really is to witness the unusual goings-on, not to affect them. It’s not even clear what happens to her at the end of the book; she has come to understand the complicated, hidden and fantastic struggle the book describes, but I had no clue what lay in her future. It seemed more that Adams had lost interest in Schechter as a character than that he was leaving the matter mysterious for artistic reasons.

So in the end, despite some fine moments, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul is strictly for fans of British humor (or, more to the point, Douglas Adams completists), connoisseurs of extremely offbeat humor or aficionados of Norse mythology. Readers who don’t fall into one of these categories would be much better off setting Tea-Time aside and opening the initial Hitchhiker’s or Gently’s books instead. 


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