FLETCH (1974) by Gregory Mcdonald

This novel was the first in a long series of mystery novels featuring Fletch, or to give him his full name (which he hates), Irwin Maurice Fletcher. Eventually the original series would run to nine novels, published between 1974 and 1986, two belated sequels in the following decade and four spin-offs. It won an Edgar in 1975 as did its sequel, Confess, Fletch (1976), the first and only such win for consecutive books in a series in the history of the Awards of the Mystery Writers of America. Which is to say, they’re pretty damn good.

“I want you to murder me.”
Fletch said, “Sure.”

The sequence of novels would eventually get a bit convoluted as Mcdonald progressed, moving backwards and forwards to provide a fascinating portrait of his protagonist at different points in his life. Here he is 29, an investigative journalist and Vietnam veteran (the war of course was still dragging on when the book first came out) and a recipient of the Bronze Star, which in typical fashion he has refused to go and officially accept. He has two ex-wives, seems to have collected a lot of disapproval for his stories and when we first meet him he looks like any other bum , lolling around on a California beach with other dropouts looking for their next drug fix. He is undercover, investigating drug dealing on the beach – the distributor is ‘Fat Sam’, who never leaves his shack on the beach, so how does he get his supplies? While there, Fletch is accosted by Alan Stanwyck, a millionaire industrialist who runs an aerospace company and who has a strange proposition – he is dying of cancer and wants Fletch to kill him and make it look like a robbery so his wife and daughter will be able to collect the insurance. Fletch senses that something is not quite right, not least because Stanwyck appears to be the picture of good health, so he accepts the offer but then starts to dig around the man’s life. The novel is set in the 7 days between his acceptance of the job and the day he is supposed to commit the crime and flee to Rio. On top of that come several other pressing items on his agenda, all with the same deadline as both his ex-wives are suing him for unpaid alimony and he is due in court while his foolish editors at the paper want him to collect his Bronze Star for publicity purposes. Will Fletch be able to solve the riddle of the drug dealing on the beach, why the seemingly healthy Stanwyck wants to die, keep his job and stay out of jail for non-payment of alimony, all in one week?

More than anything, this is a screwball comedy thriller in the style of The Front Page / His Girl Friday, effortlessly bringing up to date the conventions of the crime reporter genre of the 1930s. Like those prototypes, Fletch is a quick-thinking, fast-talking journalist on his way to a major scoop who gets involved in a murder, has to put up with interference from his editor and corrupt cops as well as various romantic entanglements. The two crime puzzles are ingenious and neatly solved while the farcical element becomes more pronounced as the story moves towards its elaborate climax in which all the plot strands come together. The conclusion simply would not have been permissible in the 1930s but it is absolutely right here, perfectly mirroring the post-Watergate disillusionment of the mid 1970s albeit without losing its sense of humour.

We follow the wise-cracking Fletch as he flits from the upper crust country club of Alan Stanwyck to the low-life existence of the sad addicts on the beach, using a variety of disguises. At its core, and this would be developed in greater detail in the subsequent books, this is a voyage of self-discovery for a young hero as he tries to find a place for himself within a society that appears more than a little frayed at the edges, surrounded as he is by rich and poor people who range from noble to venal irrespective of their income. Fletch even comes to respect some of the villains of the story, though none are portrayed as sympathetically as the tragic Bobbie, a fifteen-year-old girl who knows that her sad drug-addled life on the beach can’t last long.

This is one of the titles I included my top 10o Mystery Books and re-reading it has not dampened with enthusiasm for its witty dialogue, smart plot and poignant depiction of those lost on the outer fringes of society.

The complete series of novels, in publication order, is as follows:

  1. Fletch (1974)
  2. Confess, Fletch (1976)
  3. Fletch’s Fortune (1978)
  4. Fletch and the Widow Bradley (1981)
  5. Fletch’s Moxie (1982)
  6. Fletch and the Man Who (1983)
  7. Carioca Fletch (1984)
  8. Fletch Won (1985)
  9. Fletch, Too (1986)
  10. Son of Fletch (1993)
  11. Fletch Reflected (1994)

There were also four spinoffs featuring Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn, the cop introduced in Confess, Fletch. These were Flynn (1977), Flynn’s In (1984) and The Buck Passes Flynn (1981) and belatedly, Flynn’s World (1999). The novel was also turned into a popular movie in 1985 starring Chevy Chase with a decent script by Andrew Bergman, who knows a thing or two about comedy thrillers as author of the ‘Hollywood and LeVine’ series of mysteries and writer and/or director of such films as The In-Laws and The Freshman. It is fairly faithful to the book in terms of dialogue and story, though it is mainly remembered probably for the various comedy disguises that Chase puts on. The movie sequel, Fletch Lives, has nothing to do with the books and is best forgotten (I certainly have).

The best critical analysis I have read on the Fletch series is by John McAleer and was published in the Winter 1988 edition (Volume 21, number 1) of the late, lamented The Armchair Detective and is well worth seeking out. As far as I know it has not been reprinted, though I would love to be proved wrong on this. The Mystery File site published an excellent interview with Macdonald by Lee Goldberg, which you can access here: www.mysteryfile.com/McDonald/Goldberg.html

For more information about the late Gregory Macdonald, see the official homepage at: www.gregorymcdonald.com

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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8 Responses to FLETCH (1974) by Gregory Mcdonald

  1. Steve Lewis says:

    If my mother had named me Irwin, I probably would have never spoken to her again.

    All seriousness aside, this first book in the series is top notch, and rest are awfully good too. Anyone not having read them yet is in for a treat.

    • Hi Steve, thanks very much for the comments. It’s very much a book of its time but in some ways I think it may feel more pertinent than ever – I did slightly worry about how negatively some of the women are portrayed, but on balance you get as many good guys as good gals in the book and it is appreciable how Fletch himself mellows through the series in this respect. I wish liked the sequels from the 90s featuring his son more but haven;t read them since they came out so may well try again.

  2. Brian Sheridan says:

    I read these books about twenty years ago. You have made me want to dig them out – at least the first one and re-read it. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • Hello Brian, thanks for the kind words. Having last read it nearly 20 years ago, it was a very pleasant surprise for me to discover how much I still like and admire this book – funny and tender, tough and unsentimental yet very cleverly plotted too – works like a dream.

  3. Yvette says:

    I’ve never read any of the Fletch books, but your post makes me want to, at least, read this first one. Never liked Chevy Chase and I guess the movie (which I didn’t see) threw me off the books. Funny how that can work…Enjoyed reading your post, as usual. :)

    • Thanks very much Yvette – I know exactly what you mean about the Chevy Chase thing (though I like his sitcom COMMUNITY a lot) but the book really is a great read and a lot like a screwball newspaper yarn from the early 1930s

  4. Todd Mason says:

    The FLETCH novels are uneven–FLETCH is excellent, CONFESS even better, but THE WIDOW BRADLEY and CARIOCA are pretty turgid by me (I suspect CARIOCA allowed GMc to write off a vacation as research). I never did get around to SON OF FLETCH and had let REFLECTED get completely by me…shall have to give them a try.

    • Hi Todd, thanks very much for the comments. It is a very variable series and I completely agree that the first two are best combinations of character and plot. I initially read them all straight through in publication order, which is great in terms of the development of the character but the plots clearly do get weaker. The two later books were initially intriguing, but in the end to me it felt that perhaps the author didn’t have a lot more to add, though given the eventual father-son trajectory of the original series introducing a putative ‘son of Fletch’ is clearly the logical next step. I do wish I had liked the final two more, but in my estimation IM Fletcher definitely deserves to be regarded as one of the great original creations of 1970s detective fiction.

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