Monday, October 06, 2008

A Final Farewell to Fletch’s Father

The first novel I read featuring investigative reporter Irwin M. “Fletch” Fletcher was 1985’s Fletch Won. I fell in love within the first few pages, as I read about how an eager young Fletch was just starting out in journalism, writing obituaries, and his editor had to tell him that he shouldn’t be totally honest in what he writes. Fletch’s crime? While researching an obituary about a recently deceased woman, he’d discovered that she didn’t have a great career, or much of anything else in her life, so he wrote that she had accomplished nothing. Rude? Yes. Inappropriate? Hell, yes. The truth? That too.

You see, you can’t always tell the truth in journalism. It’s not sexy. It won’t make you friends. It won’t sell papers. That was a fact back in the 1970s and ’80s, when the bulk of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch stories took place, and it’s even truer in our present era, when too many reporters are in the tank with politicians, and many of them practice journalism to win awards, rather than to educate or enlighten the public.

Mcdonald’s death last month, at age 71, reminded me of how much I appreciated his work. I still go back now and then to read his Fletch books--11 of them in all, from Fletch (1974) to Fletch Reflected (1994)--as well as his two series featuring Boston Police Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn (Flynn, 1977) and charmer Skylar Whitfield (Skylar, 1995). But I also love his 1991 standalone, The Brave, a truly bleak story about a man who agrees to appear in a snuff film, after being promised quite a lot of money. It’s a twisted, chilling horror story, and it will give even the toughest readers nightmares.

Over the last few years, publisher Vintage/Black Lizard has reprinted the Fletch stories--which had long been out of print--in sleek paperback form. Mcdonald must have been pleased. A real maverick in publishing in the ’70s, he’d insisted that his work be issued in paperback originals, so that as many people as possible could read them. His intent wasn’t just to make more money that way, though it’s not a sin that he prospered; but he also had important things he wanted to say, frequently about journalism, and he said them in a way that was quick-witted and intelligent. Mcdonald could wink and chuckle his way through Fletch yarns without ever losing sight of the gritty world in which they were set. The Fletch novels have a rare quality: while they perfectly capture the era of their original publication, they also feel completely modern--because lies, greed, humor, and corruption just don’t age.

After pondering how I might best pay tribute to the late Gregory Mcdonald, I decided that he should be honored through the words of his fellow writers. Many were pleased to respond to my call for their opinions, so fond had they once been of this author’s oeuvre.

Don Winslow, author of The Dawn Patrol:

What can I say? I’m just sad. We all are. We owe the man a lot.

Craig McDonald, author of Head Games:

Thank God I didn’t let that Chevy Chase film dissuade me from picking up my first Fletch novel in the mid-’80s. Gregory Mcdonald’s deceptively breezy style hooked me and I quickly devoured all the other Fletchs I could find, but there were only so many and I reluctantly moved on. About three years ago, Ken Bruen sent me a copy of Mcdonald’s The Brave. Expecting a Fletch-like romp, I was left unsettled and shaken by that book--a nightmarish, fever dream of a narrative 180-degrees out of phase with Fletch’s world. I can’t say I enjoyed The Brave in any sense, but I remain floored that the same author who wrote those wonderful, funny crime novels could deliver this other twisted, chilling vision of an innocent man’s horrific and needless self-sacrifice. Though I’d hesitate to urge The Brave on anyone, its mere existence reveals Gregory Mcdonald as a fierce and fearless writer possessing a range only our finest crime authors can rival.

Robert Ward, author of Red Baker and Four Kinds of Rain:

Years ago, I was living out in a funky house on [New York’s] Napeague Bay with my girlfriend and our dog Byron. I was writing on a deadline for Dick Schapp at Sport Magazine, and I swore I would not do a damned thing until I finished this long article. I’d been working all morning, so I made some lunch, and casually picked up Fletch, by Gregory Mcdonald. Never heard of the guy, but the book looked kind of cool. I started reading while eating my grilled cheese. Big mistake. In spite of my deadline, I read on and on and on. Meanwhile, Dick’s secretary is calling, and I’m lying and say I’m having a little trouble with the piece (Piece? What piece?). I just had to find out what the hell happened to Fletch. Eventually I did, and finished the piece in time too. So what if I had to stay up all night? Fletch was worth it, and so was Confess, Fletch [1976]. They were great crime novels, brilliantly plotted, witty, and super hip. Just as cool today as they were back when. Just don’t read them if you’re on a deadline. Farewell to Gregory Mcdonald, whom I never met but admired. Fletch, his greatest invention, will live on.

Bill Bryan, Shamus Award-nominated author of Keep It Real:

Gregory McDonald opened a lot of people’s eyes--including mine--to the fact that exciting, involving plots and gut-busting laughter are not incompatible. It took me quite a few years to act on this revelation, but without it I never would have written a novel. So thanks, Gregory. You kept us all riveted and entertained for a hell of a long time.

Corey Redekop, author of Shelf Monkey:

Like most people my age, I came to Gregory Mcdonald via Chevy Chase. Fletch was a fun movie (mind-blowingly fun to a 14-year-old), but the book was so far beyond the movie in terms of dialogue and style that I didn’t really appreciate it at the time. After a few years, I revisited Fletch, and summarily devoured the canon, plus the Flynn books. Mcdonald was the personification of streamlined writing--a no-nonsense, straight-ahead plot with superb dialogue. Reading Mcdonald is like taking a master’s class in how to tell a story, pared down to its most basic elements. And damn, was he funny. I don’t write like Mcdonald, not at all, and wouldn’t even try.

Ken Bruen, author of the award-winning Jack Taylor private eye series and the forthcoming novel Once Were Cops:

Not only was he one wonderful writer, and deceptively so, but he truly introduced the whole concept of mystery being fun and hugely enjoyable. He was a master of his art, and like all true gifted writers, he made it seem so easy.

He is irreplaceable and the world is truly dimmer without the light of his uplifting spirit and work.

Tim Maleeny, author of the P.I Cape Weathers series:

Gregory Mcdonald was one of the first authors who made me want to write crime fiction one day. His books are pure inspiration, [with] infectious plots carried almost entirely by dialogue, lightning fast but funny, even hilarious at times despite the serious subject matter. He’s still one of the few writers that I’ll go back and read again, even though I know so many of his books by heart. His words live on in all of us, as readers, writers, and eternal fans.

Jon Jordan, editor and publisher of Crimespree Magazine:

The Gregory Mcdonald Fletch series is the first mystery series that I actually spent my own money on. Up until then, I read whatever my mom read (great books, make no mistake). I ran across Fletch while spending one of my first paychecks. There were three books out at the time and I was hooked from the first page. Mcdonald had a wonderful ability to combine great action with a superb mystery, and add humor that wasn’t forced and still holds up to this day.

Grant McKenzie, author of Switch:

Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch series was the catalyst and inspiration for my very first novel (it was an unpublishable mess, but still, I was 15 and it was a start). Mcdonald’s gift for moving a story along through witty, cut-to-the-quick dialogue is unparalleled, and most of us who try to emulate it seem to fail miserably. He just had that magic touch and will be greatly missed.

Marcus Sakey, author of At the City’s Edge and The Blade Itself:

I came on Fletch in a used bookstore when I was 16. I opened it on a whim, having liked the movie. Thirty minutes later, I was 50 pages in and no longer a fan of the film.

Victor Gischler, the author of Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse:

Like so many dorky teenagers, I came to the character Fletch via the films. I’ll let others rehash the argument that the films were nowhere near as good as the books, etc. But I will contend that it was the films that brought Fletch to the public in a big way and confirmed his influence on the pop-culture lexicon. In high school, it seemed there was a time my buddies and I communicated almost exclusively through movie quotations. Lines from Fletch played a big part in our daily lives. Whenever one of us was broke, we’d invariably say, “Charge it to the Underhills.” And of course the films could not exist without Mcdonald’s novels.

Both Mcdonald and Fletch (whether he looks like Chevy Chase in your mind or not) will live on as pop-culture icons.

David Fulmer, author of the Valentin St. Cyr novels, including the forthcoming Lost River:

Let William Campbell Gault’s quote that “the best revenge is good writing” be one of Gregory Mcdonald’s epitaphs. For my money, he mastered what the practitioners of the crafts of both fiction and boxing aspire to: clean punches.

Gerald So, fiction editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site and co-editor of The Lineup: Poems on Crime:

Fletch was the first mystery novel I read for pleasure. Fast-paced and full of wit and substance, it started a run of more than 15 years during which I’ve read mysteries almost exclusively, [and] during which only a handful have spoken to me as clearly and immediately as Fletch. I will miss Mcdonald, yet in a sense I never will. His style is so much what I look for in other writing, and my own.

Ace Atkins, author of a critically acclaimed series featuring blues historian Nick Travers, and also author of the forthcoming historical thriller Devil’s Garden:

Gregory Mcdonald was a massive influence on my life and career. I found the Fletch books when I was in high school, and they helped me to become a crime reporter and crime novelist. The books were so damn funny and sharp. His dialogue had a Hemingway brilliance about it, so spare and natural, it didn’t look like writing. I learned a great deal from Mcdonald and always thought I’d get a chance to meet him. Fletch really changed my life.

Robert Eversz, author of the Nina Zero novels, including Burning Garbo and Zero to the Bone:

When I first began to read crime novels, in the early 1970s, the holy trinity of mystery writers consisted of the three M’s: Ross Macdonald, John D. MacDonald, and Gregory Mcdonald. All three belong in the pantheon. Gregory Mcdonald’s fast and clean narrative style was so ahead of its time, he’s still contemporary. He was the most modern mystery writer of his times--and also the funniest.

Joe R. Lansdale, the author of Leather Maiden as well as the Hap Collins/Leonard Pine novels:

Man, one of the good guys down. Mcdonald had a style all his on. He was everything I admire in a writer. Brains. Brevity. Originality. What a loss.

Patrick Lennon, author of the Tom Fletcher novels, including this year’s Steel Witches:

Like many British readers, I came to Gregory Mcdonald’s work through the 1980s film of Fletch. I found a book which, on the page, almost resembled a film script--starting off my own interest in reading film scripts alongside novels. His dialogue was distilled into a very pure essence, indeed.

Craig McGill, award winning journalist and author of Human Traffic: Sex Slaves and Immigration:

Mcdonald was a true writer of the people, concerned with that one thing that matters most to those who write for the purest of reasons: to have others read his words. He risked the ire of almost as many people as his most famous fictional character when he took a break from hardback publishers and went straight to paperbacks. And while he may be remembered for more than Fletch, it was this character that earned him the most praise, and rightly so: there are few creations out there that can make even cynical hacks want to enjoy being a journalist again. Fletch was that man and Mcdonald was his creator.

Will Beall, author of the critically acclaimed novel L.A. Rex:

Greg Mcdonald’s Fletch moved through Mcdonald’s novels with the same easy courage and almost supernatural aplomb that Bugs Bunny had strolling through those Warner Bros. cartoons. Errant Knight and recalcitrant smart-ass, Fletch spoke truth to power, brought low the mighty, and championed the weak--with dialogue sharp enough to cut glass. Mcdonald, and Fletch--for my money, his finest creation--will be sorely missed.

Bill Cameron, author of Lost Dog:

This has been a tough time in our little tribe, losing both Gregory Mcdonald and James Crumley.

The thing that always struck me about Gregory Mcdonald with Fletch was the way Mcdonald could portray a character who was larger than life and yet infuse him with a kind of grounded authenticity that made him seem real. As much as I love so many of the great characters of our genre, Fletch was the first who I believed might exist in the real world. I loved that feeling as a reader, and hope that I have been guided by it as a writer.

A great loss for all of us, readers and writers alike.


pattinase (abbott) said...

What I remember most was my son laughing when he read these books. Thanks, Gregory McDonald.

Anonymous said...

I also really like the addicting Fletch (and Flynn) novels. The dialogue is so quick and the stories are . I've read all except Fletch's Moxie (cant find it). I especially like Fletch Won, Confess Fletch, Fletch and the widow Bradley (didn't see that coming!)and of course Fletch! I love that I can read the stories in one day. I wish there were more!!!

Anonymous said...

years later... I got to know G. Mcdonald's literature in 2011. First it was The Brave, second The Education of Gregory Mcdonald/Souvenirs from a Blown World. What a witty writer!

Greetings from Germany.

Annette Lorenz