Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Fletch Lives No Longer

“I actually learned to write dialogue by reading Mcdonald’s ‘Fletch’ books. If you read his stuff, it reads like one of my screenplays. They’re very dense with dialogue, and spartan in descriptive passages (just the way I like ’em).” -- Award-winning director Kevin Smith, who once sought to adapt Fletch Won for the silver screen
Former Boston Globe reporter and novelist Gregory Mcdonald has died. He passed away yesterday at his farm in Giles County, Tennessee. Mcdonald was 71 years old and had been diagnosed with cancer.

I am still stunned. We lost a major literary giant, one whose works not nearly enough people knew about or read. Many people knew him only because of the admittedly funny 1985 film adaptation of his novel Fletch (1974).
Gregory Mcdonald (born February 15, 1937 in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts) is an American mystery writer best known for his Fletch character, as played by Chevy Chase in the movie of the same name. The Fletch series, currently consisting of nine novels, also spawned the “[Boston Police Inspector Francis Xavier] Flynn” series, as well as the “Son of Fletch” series. Two of the Fletch books have earned Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America: Fletch was named Best First Novel in 1975, and Confess, Fletch won for Best Paperback Original in 1977.
That’s Wikipedia’s short bio of the man, but you didn’t really know who Mcdonald was until you discovered his words.

You see, when you opened up a novel by Mcdonald, usually one starring investigative reporter I.M. “Fletch” Fletcher or his eventual son, John Fletcher Faoni, you were in for quite a ride. Eschewing flowery narration, his novels were told in third-person and consisted mostly of dialogue. He was quick and to the point, and the man could hook a reader like few others. For example, here’s an excerpt from the first page of Fletch:
“What’s your name?”


“What’s your full name?”


“What’s your first name?”



“Irwin. Irwin Fletcher. People call me Fletch.”

“Irwin Fletcher, I have a proposition to make to you. I will give you a thousand dollars for just listening to it. If you decide to reject the proposition, you take the thousand dollars, go away, and never tell anyone we talked. Fair enough?”

“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”

“Of course.”

“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to murder me.”

The black shoes tainted with sand came across the oriental rug. The man took an envelope from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it into Fletch’s lap. Inside were ten one-hundred-dollar bills.
That’s poetry, pure and simple. Told with the pace of a 1940s screwball comedy, or to be more modern, the speedy dialogue of Gilmore Girls, Mcdonald was a true economist with words and didn’t waste any time telling you things you didn’t need to know. Who wouldn’t want to read the rest of that book, after learning that somebody wants Fletch to murder them ... and Fletch even agrees to it? What follows is a shockingly short novel, at only 208 pages, that is filled with so much plot that it would put most novels that are twice as long to shame. Grittier and darker than the Chevy Chase vehicle, the book also is much funnier. (One running gag has Fletch completely unable to remember the complicated multi-syllabic alias he gave himself on a spur-of-the-moment whim, so it gets more and more unlikely each time he hauls it out--and no one seems to notice.) And it’s freighted with a biting satirical edge about the state of modern cities and the business of journalism.

Somehow, Mcdonald never lets all the balls he juggles drop. He writes a carefully choreographed dance and plans every step, every move--no word wasted, and no excess fat.

A true maverick, Gregory Mcdonald believed books should be read by as many people as possible. He insisted that his work be published in paperback, angering many writers who felt he was devaluing the genre. His Fletch timeline also jumped all over the place; for example, Fletch Won, a prequel, was actually published as the eighth book in the series. You never really knew what you would get when you opened a novel by Mcdonald, but you could be sure to expect a good time, with enough great dialogue that you’d be bugging friends and family by repeating it to them, insisting that they read Mcdonald’s books as well.

I want to keep this short, detailed but punchy, in the spirit of the great man himself. May he rest in peace. God, I’ll miss him.

READ MORE:Obituary: Gregory Mcdonald, Author of ‘Fletch’ Mystery Novels,” by David Mehegan (The Boston Globe); “Manager: ‘Fletch’ Author Gregory Mcdonald Dies” (Associated Press); “Irwin M. Fletcher, R.I.P.,” by Jayme Lynn Blaschke (Gibberish); “Gregory Mcdonald,” by Tim Maleeny (Read This); “Gregory Mcdonald, R.I.P.,” by Ed Gorman; “Gregory Mcdonald and the Fletch Novels,” by Lee Goldberg (Mystery*File).


Corey said...

This is a true loss.

Anonymous said...

Had the pleasure of meeting Mr. M a few years ago. His advice to a fledgling novelist was pretty typical of the man's rep. He said "screw everything except your art. Write what YOU want to."

Anonymous said...

Is it true that this we copied from that Ed Rants guy?

JA Konrath said...

I grew up reading Fletch and Flynn, tracking down every one I could find. Before reading McDonald I never thought mysteries could be funny.

Adios, Fletch. I hope they have typewriters in heaven.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Short answer to Al B.: No, it's not true.


Tim Maleeny said...

Cameron, a great tribute to a writer whose influence extends far beyond awareness of the man or his books. So many influential writers who found that fine balance between dialogue and action, or suspense and humor, found it from reading Mcdonald. He was an original, and his books are timeless.