Fletch; Confess, Fletch; Flynn; Fletch's Fortune; Fletch and the Widow Bradley; The Buck Passes Flynn, by Gregory McDonald
New York: Avon Books, 1974, 253 pp., $2.25 paper.
New York: Avon Books, 1976, 172 pp., $2.25 paper.
New York: Avon Books, 1977, 278 pp., $2.25 paper.
New York: Avon Books, 1978, 252 pp., $2.25 paper.
New York: Warner Books, 1981, 285 pp., $2.95 paper.
New York: Ballantine Books, 1981, 216 pp., $2.25 paper.
"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?"
"Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?"
"I want you to murder me."…
Fletch said, "Sure."
This is the new antiauthoritarian hero-detective? Yes.
Author Gregory Mcdonald is a newsman turned mystery writer who has produced two colossally successful series: the Fletch and Flynn mysteries. His first two books, Fletch and Confess, Fletch, each won the prestigious Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allen Poe Award; indeed, he is the first author ever to have won the award twice consecutively. The Fletch series, the better of the two, contains some of the cleverest, most imaginative, and original plotting and some of the wittiest dialogue to be found in the detective novel. Not only that, Fletch, and to a lesser extent Flynn, are practicing antiauthoritarians: Fletch is an artful tax-dodger with an innate and sustained contempt bordering on hatred for agents of the government.
"C.I.A., Mister Fletcher."
"Um. Would you mind spelling that?"
The Fletch novels are unique in many ways. The hero is not in fact a detective but a newspaper reporter. The novels typically begin in astonishing, unbelievable circumstances: the hero agreeing to murder his client; the hero getting fired from his job for reporting a recent quote from a man two years dead; and so on. Most of the action in these books takes place without the support of conventional narrative: dialogue replaces description as the medium of plot. Fletch is almost all dialogue. The result is a fleet-footed adventure in which exposition, characterization, problem, and resolution all emerge from the interplay of conversation among its actors.
The plots are complex: the stories as a rule contain several interrelated plotlines that move along interdependently (in contrast to Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories, for example, which are usually unrelated to each other and unfold episodically). So while the primary action of Fletch concerns the hero and his victim-to-be, a parallel plot involves Fletch's investigation of a drug ring, and a subordinate storyline concerns the attempts of the hero's two ex-wives to sue him for nonpayment of alimony. Can Fletch murder his client, collecting payment for it while at the same time evading the tax on it, solve the drug-supply mystery, see that his ex-wives get what they deserve, and at the end come out innocent of all wrongdoing? Suffice it to say that the author brings off a near-impossible task, resolving all plotlines and achieving one of the most poetically satisfying final images one could imagine. Indeed, Fletch is a virtuoso performance at every level.
In Flynn, Mcdonald's other hero, an inspector on the Boston police force (where, mysteriously, there is no such rank as inspector), is put in the unusual position of witnessing as it happens the very crime he will be called upon to solve. Whereas Fletch is a cocky, sarcastic young bachelor (a twice-divorced bachelor, to be sure), Flynn is a gentle, phlegmatic family man with a wife and five children.
Like Fletch, Flynn shows a delightful disdain for certain authorities. Mcdonald depicts FBI agents ("Fibbies") as dictatorial bastards who Flynn, while playing dumb ("'One can't keep up with the criminal mind,' said Flynn. 'Especially when it belongs to the FBI.'"), manages to outsmart, elude, and frustrate at every turn. And one will be entertained by his attitude toward too many laws ("'You feds. A law for everything.'"…"'The hell with the law!…There's entirely too much of it!'"), especially tax laws ("'He always had a complete physical exam before doing anything about his income taxes'").
Both protagonists meet in Confess, Fletch where Fletch, in Boston to do research for a biography of the Western artist Edgar Arthur Thorp, is accused of murdering a young lady whom he finds, naked and dead on the carpet, upon returning home from dinner. Flynn, of course, is the investigating officer. While trying to clear himself, Fletch works to retrieve a stolen painting for its rightful owner in Italy, who does not, however, know it is stolen; solves the disappearance of his girlfriend's father; and fights off the advances of that girlfriend's mother. The unraveling of all this sees Fletch assume several different identities, break into and enter a heavily burglar-alarmed house without being detected, and interview a lesbian couple, all the while staying one step ahead of his enemies. Throughout it all, there are the usual antigovernment touches.
"Sorry if I appear to be ignoring you [says Flynn] but a City Councilwoman was murdered in her bath this morning and since it's a politically sensitive case, I've been assigned to it. I've never held with taking baths in the morning, but when you're in politics god knows how many baths a day you need."
The most interesting, imaginative, and baffling of the Flynn novels is The Buck Passes Flynn. After an ordinary and humdrum opening ("From across the men's room Flynn aimed his gun at the President of the United States."), we get to the main problem. It seems that in the little town of Ada, Texas (pop. 1,856), residents one morning awake to find on their doorsteps, each of them, envelopes containing $100,000 in cash. One hundred thousand dollars for each man, woman, and child in town. How could it happen? Who's dealing it, and why? Flynn is dispatched to the scene. (Why? No crime has been committed.) But all the residents have left, save two. Where have they gone, and why have the two remained?
People begin receiving the same amount of money elsewhere: East Frampton, Massachusetts, and then an entire Pentagon Intelligence section. The book traces out the effects of this largesse upon those who receive it and upon the nation's economy in the event this boon (disaster?) becomes more widespread. Flynn's investigations take him to Las Vegas, to Hawaii, and to Smolensk, USSR, to meet with master counterfeiter Cecil Hill.
Is the money counterfeit? Are the Russians spreading it around? I'll only report that Cecil Hill does say:
"All money is fake. An illusion."
"Excrement," Flynn said. "Garbage."
"No. Both excrement and garbage have some use. Money is totally fake. All money is fake."
While being led to the solution of the mystery, the reader learns a lot about money, inflation, and the human response to both.
Finally, Fletch's Fortune, and Fletch and the Widow Bradley. In the latter, Fletch suffers acute embarrassment and sincere incomprehension over having reported a recent quote from someone who's been dead two years. What happened? Can it be that the man is dead—and also quite alive? Now I'm not usually one to say, "Check your premises." Nevertheless!
My personal favorite of all these books is Fletch's Fortune. Catching up with Fletch after a lifetime of nonpayment of taxes ("'I have a very slow accountant.'"), the CIA corners Fletch into spying for them. (What's the CIA got to do with taxes?) They want him to bug a newsmen's convention, and Fletch, seemingly intent on being cooperative, meets and exceeds their wildest expectations. As the action progresses, the reader is kept abreast of the convention program.
10:30 What Time Is It In Bangkok?
—an editor's view
11:00 GOD IS IN MY TYPEWRITER, I KNOW IT.
—an address by Wharton Kruse
There is, of course, a murder that Fletch, of course, solves. But Fletch's romantic exploits are a principal interest of the novel. He spends much time resisting the overtures of a fabulously beautiful woman (whom he ends up trying to seduce), while pursuing an overweight, unattractive woman who no longer believes in herself. And there is the especial delight of seeing Fletch, after all these years, being caught up with:
"I.R.S.," the man said.
Fletch slid the door open.
"How do you spell that?"
"Internal Revenue Service."
And at long last we learn why Fletch has never filed:
"Is there any political thinking behind your not paying taxes?"
"Oh no. My motives are purely esthetic, if you want to know the truth."
"Yes. I've seen your tax forms. Visually, they're ugly. In fact very offensive. And their use of the English language is highly objectionable. Perverted."
"Our tax forms are perverted?"
"Ugly and perverted. Just seeing them makes my stomach turn."
As should by now be evident, these novels are a lot of fun to read. And the fun reflects the author's view of life and how to live it. Mcdonald's most engaging hero, Fletch, is an extreme antiauthoritarian. He breaks all rules and obeys nobody—not his editor, not his ex-wives' attorneys, not the courts, certainly not the agents of any government. But Fletch does live a highly purposeful, goal-directed life, making his own rules and then living by them, and he has enormous fun and reaps great rewards, financial and emotional, while doing so. Always, he respects other people's rights, and sometimes he goes out of his way to help certain individuals. And always, justice is done: the bad are punished, the good win out.
The novels also reflect a certain view of evil. In much detective fiction, evil is a potent, often triumphant, force. It is tremendously powerful in Mickey Spillane, for example, ubiquitous in Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (the brilliant Martin Beck novels), and an overwhelming presence in Ross MacDonald. The latter provides a good contrast. Both Lew Archer (of Ross MacDonald's works) and Fletch are Californians, both single, both once-married. But Lew Archer sees mainly the seamy side of things: behind the clean white facade of every stucco house there lurks evil: "trouble," foreboding, menacing; in every family's past there is a history of jealousies, hatreds, bitternesses and betrayals. Very little is as it seems in the world Lew Archer inhabits, and there is very little good in it. The most Archer seems able to do is to prevent further evil.
In Fletch's world, by contrast, evil does not seem to be a force at all. Bad things do happen, but they are the discrete and self-contained results of individuals acting in certain ways; they do not form an overpowering metaphysical entity. Further, these evil acts can be resisted, and their effects rectified, by the acts of the hero. It is only a few people who are bad in Fletch's world, not the world itself. The world itself is a fun place, the people in it are in control of themselves and their circumstances, and these circumstances, even when they are bad to begin with, can be turned to advantage in the end.
The world of these novels is one in which concrete evil actions can be and are countered by the ingenuity and adroitness of a talented adversary. It is easy to fall in love with such a world and hard for the reader to leave it.
Ed Regis teaches philosophy at Howard University. He gratefully acknowledges the help of Pamela Lynne Regis on this review.