History: Published in 1987, this is the beginning of a short series, the last incomplete due to his death of a heart attack at age 49.
Plot: Four billion years ago, nine dozen multi-tentacled creatures called Salaxalans, discontent with their own world, leave and attempt to populate Earth. They leave their mothership in orbit, but, because of the laziness of the engineer and faulty advice from their Electric Monk (an automaton designed to believe things so its owners don't have to), their landing craft explodes on Earth, triggering a spark that creates amino acids and the start of life on earth. The Salaxalan engineer, having thus failed to complete a task during his life, is forced to wander the Earth as a ghost. He watches as terrestrial life develops. In the early 1800s, the ghost learns of a time machine owned by Professor Reg Chronotis at St Cedd's, but is unable to use it. The ghost finds he can influence humans, and possesses Samuel Taylor Coleridge to write a second verse to his "Kubla Khan" poem that includes instructions on fixing the damaged lander, as well as additional references in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". The ghost then continues to look for a way to influence Reg to use the time machine to "correct" the past.
In the present, the Salaxalan ghost manages to weakly influence Reg to use the time machine, disguised as his chambers at St. Cedd's, to travel to a distant planet, taking possession of another Electric Monk wandering it. However, this particular Monk had developed a malfunction and practises all sorts of random religions, each for only a few minutes at a time. Finding the Monk unreliable, the ghost leaves it to wander on Earth, and through a series of additional influences, finds itself able to possess that of Michael Wenton-Weakes, a writer recently fired as editor of a magazine. The ghost urges Michael to kill the magazine's new editor, Albert Ross, and then has him read Coleridge's works, preparing him to confront Reg to use the time machine in order to prevent the lander's explosion in the past.
Meanwhile, the Electric Monk is told by a porter to "shoot off", and so "shoots off" at Gordon Way, president of Way Forward Technologies II, during a call to his sister Susan's answering machine. The Monk goes on to suffer several other misadventures. Gordon's ghost, having not yet finished his phone call, witnesses Ross' murder, and manages to relay this to Susan over the phone before fading away. Richard MacDuff, Reg's friend, Susan's boyfriend and Gordon's employee, is found as a possible suspect in Gordon's death; he is contacted by Dirk Gently (Richard's college friend and sole detective in his "Holistic Detective Agency") while attempting to erase a message on Susan's answering machine. After hearing Richard's mishaps and consulting with a child- as only children can provide obvious answers as they have not yet developed the 'blinkers' that prevent adults from doing so-, Dirk works out that Richard's actions (among others) have been influenced by a ghost, and that the only thing that could explain the events would be a time machine. Reg admits having a time machine when Dirk and Richard question him about it; they are then convinced by Michael, still possessed by the Salaxalan ghost, to use it to go back just before the lander exploded so he can fix it. As the three see the possessed Michael off, Richard learns from Susan about Michael murdering Ross, and then they realize that the lander's exploding is what creates life on earth. Using Reg's time machine, they travel to visit Coleridge, so that Dirk ("the man from Porlock") can distract him and thus alter "Kubla Khan" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" so that the Salaxalan ghost will not have the proper instructions to stop the lander's explosion. They then destroy the Salaxalan mothership.
Dirk, Richard, and Reg return to the present to find things much as they were before, though Reg's time machine no longer works; his phone has been fixed to never go wrong again, but the time machine always caused the phone to malfunction when it was used. Reg "rescued" a small proportion of the wondrous music heard by Richard on board the Salaxalan satellite, explained as the oeuvre of J. S. Bach (although Reg brought back many times more music than one man could write in a single lifetime). It was in fact "the music of life itself," created by the ship's computer from the data it collected over four billion years of observing the planet. This echoes Richard's work on the conversion of data into music. One of Dirk's old cases no longer needs to be solved- the cat that he was looking for having apparently never vanished, and indeed having died two years ago in its owner's arms- and he sends a revised bill to the client, "For saving humankind - no charge."
Review: A ghost, an alien ghost, a horse, an Electric Monk, a time machine, synthesized music, and a quirky detective whose modus operandi is a misapplication of quantum physics in the realm of the macrocosm is the cast of a humorously surreal and intelligent murder mystery. I read this while in Cape Cod. I got lost a few times, because the book is not linear, and the chapters change quickly from one setting to another. The most interesting thing about this book is Douglas Adams imagination and humor, he seems to be laughing at himself, with the rest of the population.
Opening Line: “This time there would be no witnesses.”
Closing Line: “He put on his hat and left for the day.”
Quotes: “The other was small, roundish, and moved with an ungainly restlessness, like a number of elderly squirrels trying to escape from a sack.”
“And a thousand slimy things lived on”; and so did I.