Investigative reporter I.M. Fletcher, who hates his given names of Irwin Maurice, and thusly goes by "Fletch" (and can you blame him?) isn't technically a P.I. by avocation. So what's he doing here? Well, when the writing's this fast, sharp and funny, we're too busy laughing to bother with technicalities.
Fletch, at least when we initially meet him, is a hotshot LA-based newspaper reporter beset by a hypertense and demanding editor, two ex-wives hungry for alimony (although arguably hungrier for Fletch himself), and a coterie of military men determined to award Fletch a Bronze Star he doesn't want. While trying to duck all these menaces, Fletch stumbles across a seemingly successful businessman who wants to pay Fletch to murder him.
In Fletch (1974), the first published novel (although it's actually fourth in the chronology more on that later), Mcdonald manages to balance an intricately and tightly plotted mystery with often howlingly funny dialogue. The book manages to come up with several neat surprises -- not least of which is the ending -- and gives several P.I. cliches a much-needed kick in the pants. (One running gag has Fletch completely unable to remember the complicated multisyllabic 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.) But while Fletch is a sleuth who seems to take absolutely nothing seriously, he nevertheless seems absolutely intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery presented to him. He's a guy with every bit of the wit, resource and style of, say, Spenser or Jim Rockford it just so happens that Fletch doesn't have a P.I. license. (Funny that all three characters debuted within a year of each other)
After that first book, Mcdonald felt he couldn't write the immediate sequel he had in mind, because he didn't have the money to research the Brazilian setting he wanted to use. So he skipped ahead a volume and wrote Confess, Fletch, set in his native Boston. This kicked off a habit Mcdonald developed of jumping around in the Fletch chronology, writing prequels followed by sequels followed by prequels again, occasionally stopping to fill a gap in the chronology here and there. In the order in which the novels take place, the series leads off with Fletch Won (1985), in which Fletch is a young and engaged-to-be-married, relatively inexperienced reporter. Then comes Fletch, Too (1986) which finds Fletch on his honeymoon in Africa, searching for his long-lost father. It's followed by Fletch And The Widow Bradley (1981) and then Fletch, which chronicle his LA reporter days. After that, it's Carioca Fletch (1984), the Brazilian novel mentioned earlier; Confess, Fletch (1976), which introduced Mcdonald's other series character, the Irish-born Boston Police Inspector (and loving family man) Francis Xavier Flynn; Fletch's Fortune (1978) and Fletch's Moxie (1982), which find our hero investigating shady goings on in the U.S. South; Fletch And The Man Who (1983) wherein the once doggedly anti-establishment Fletch finds himself working for a mainstream presidential campaign; and finally Son Of Fletch (1993) and Fletch Reflected (1994) which actually focus more on the mystery-solving exploits of John Fletcher Faoni, a young man who claims to be Fletch's illegitimate son, conceived during the events chronicled in Fletch's Fortune. You got all that?
Some later volumes in the series have their detractors. Mcdonald drastically changes Fletch's circumstances throughout the series, and even the focal characters, which means that you don't always get what you expect. Of course, some see this as a virtue, but be aware that Confess, Fletch, for example, is as much a Flynn novel as it is a Fletch novel, and Fletch is pretty much a secondary character in Fletch Reflected. As well, be aware that not all the actual mysteries that Fletch has to solve are on the innovative level of the original novel. But Mcdonald is a lean, economical stylist, and even the least of the Fletch novels flies along at a breakneck pace, with wit, panache and subversive mischief to spare.
Fletch won a Edgar in 1974 for best first mystery novel. (Mcdonald had previously published a novel in 1964 called Running Scared; no relation to the Billy Crystal/Gregory Hines movie.) In 1976, Mcdonald won another Edgar (Best Original Paperback Novel) for the follow-up, Confess, Fletch , the only time a novel and its sequel have won back-to-back Edgars. The decision to publish Confess, Fletch only in paperback struck many as odd -- Fletch, after all, initially appeared in hardcover -- but most of the subsequent Fletch novels would also appear as paperbacks, despite pressure from other writers who felt that Mcdonald was devaluing the mystery genre by not publishing in hardcover. ("I like to be read by people," Mcdonald is reported to have said in explanation.) Hardcover publication of the series resumed with Fletch Won (1985).
Fletch also made his successful movie debut in 1985. The movie Fletch is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name, despite a somewhat broader comic tone. The screenplay by Andrew (Jack Levine, Honeymoon In Vegas) Bergman preserves the original mystery and several fine dialogue exchanges, as well as adding a quotient of goofiness that, while not particularly suitable to the character in the novel, works well for Chevy Chase. Chase himself is a good (not inspired, but good) choice to play the wisecracking reporter, and a number of interesting people pop up in minor roles. The sequel, however, is another story. Fletch Lives is long on goofiness, short on wit, and is pretty dire on any level. Not surprisingly, it's not based on any of Mcdonald's novels.
There were rumours back in 2000 or so that director Kevin Smith (best known for Dogma and Clerks, and referred to around here as "the other Kevin Smith") was developing a film based on the prequel novel, Fletch Won. Evidently Smith has held the film rights to the book series for a while now, and has been quoted as saying "I actually learned to write dialogue by reading Mcdonald's Fletch books."
Respectfully submitted by Rudyard Kennedy.
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