Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gregory Mcdonald

Gregory Mcdonald died on Sunday, apparently. His website hasn't been updated yet:

Like too many writers, his later work wasn't up to the standards of his earlier work. Sometimes that's an actual decline, and sometimes it's merely regression to the mean -- an artist who's done something groundbreaking isn't likely to keep doing something groundbreaking. There was a little of both in Mcdonald's career -- "Fletch" is simply brilliant and not quite like anything I know of that came before it. I won't claim Mcdonald invented the dialog driven novel, but he surely perfected it. Kevin Smith's told people for years he learned to write dialog from Gregory Mcdonald; so did I. The scene in "The Long Run" where Trent meets Melissa du Bois for the first time -- that was me, trying to be Mcdonald. I won't claim I succeeded, but it's not a bad scene for something written by an 18 year old, and that's Mcdonald's influence almost entirely: if you're going to imitate, and at 18 you're going to, imitating the best is a great idea.

(I read an interview with Michael Jordan recently. He said, in essence, of course Kobe Bryant imitated him. As he, Jordan, had imitated the generation before him. It's how sports and how art evolves. Jordan influenced how an entire generation of basketball players played the game: Mcdonald influenced how an entire generation of writers wrote dialog.)

"Fletch" introduces Irwin Maurice Fletcher, who, sensibly enough, goes by Fletch. The sequel, the "Godfather 2" of the Mcdonald universe, is "Confess, Fletch," in which Mcdonald introduced Francis Xavier Flynn -- one of the great characters in literature, sharing space with Fletch, another of the great characters. That Mcdonald never had Flynn and Fletch together in another novel is one of the real missed opportunities in literature -- but the one novel in which they do both appear together will have to stand as among the finest mysteries ever written. (And personally, one of my favorite novels period.)

Within the last year, my daughter Andrea went hunting through the paperbacks on my bookshelf. She dug out the raggediest books on the shelf and went to pick out something to read -- the ugliest of the books was "Confess, Fletch," which was sitting on the shelf with no back cover and torn in half down the spine -- literally in two pieces. "Well," she said, "you've sure read this one a lot." So she took "Confess Fletch" and went off to read. When she got done, she said, "He reminds me of you, except, I liked it better."

"He reminds me of you" is a compliment I will happily take, even if it is wholly backwards. No surprise about the rest of it, either. :-)


The opening of "Confess, Fletch:"

FLETCH snapped on the light and looked into the den.

Except for the long windows and the area over the desk, the walls were lined with books. There were two red leather wing chairs in the room, a small divan, and a coffee table.

On the little desk was a black telephone.

Fletch dialled "0". "Get me the police, please."

"Is this an emergency?"

"Not at the moment."

The painting over the desk was a Ford Madox Brown--a country couple wrapped against the wind.

"Then please dial '555-7523'."

"Thank you."

He did so.

"Sergeant McAuliffe speaking."

"Sergeant, this is Mister Fletcher, 152 Beacon Street, apartment 6B."

"Yes, sir."

"There's a murdered girl in my living room."

"A what girl?"


Naked, her breasts and hips full, her stomach lean, she lay on her back between the coffee table and the divan. Her head was on the hardwood floor in the space between the carpet and the fireplace. Her face, whiter than the areas kept from the sun by her bikini, eyes staring, looked as if she were about to complain of some minor discomfort, such as, "Move your arm, will you?" or "Your watchband is scratching me".

"Murdered," Fletch repeated.

There was a raw spot behind the girl's left ear. It had had time to neither swell nor bleed. There was just a gully with slim blood streaks running along it. Her hair streamed away from it as if to escape.

"This is the Police Business phone."

"Isn't murder police business?"

"You're supposed to call Emergency with a murder."

"I think the emergency is over."

"I mean, I don't even have a tape recorder on this phone."

"So talk to your boss. Make a recommendation."

"Is this some kinda joke?"

"No. It isn't."

"No one's ever called Police Business phone to report a murder. Who is this?"

"Look, would you take a message? 152 Beacon Street, apartment 6B, murder, the name is Fletcher. Would you write that down?"

"156 Beacon Street?"

"152 Beacon Street, 6B." Through the den door, Fletch's eyes passed over his empty suitcases standing in the hall. "Apartment is in the name of Connors."

"Your name is Fletcher?"

"With an 'F'. Let Homicide know, will you? They'll be interested."


FLETCH looked at his watch. It was twenty-one minutes to ten.

Instinctively he timed the swiftness of the police.

He returned to the living room and mixed himself a Scotch and water at the sideboard. He would not bother with ice. He concentrated on opening the Scotch bottle, making more of a job of it than was necessary. He did not look in the direction of the girl.

She was beautiful, she was dead, and he had seen enough of her.

Sloshing the drink in his glass as he walked, he went back into the den and turned on all the lights.

He stood at the desk, looking closely at the Brown. The cottage behind the country couple was just slightly tilted in its landscape, as if it, too, were being affected by the wind. Fletch had seen similiar Browns, but never even a reproduction of this painting.

The phone made him jump. Some of his drink splashed on to the desk blotter.

He placed his glass on the blotter, and his handkerchief over the stains before answering.

"Mister Fletcher?"


"Ah, good, you did arrive. Welcome to Boston."

"Thank you. Who is this?"

"Ronald Horan. Horan Gallery. I tried to get you earlier."

"I went out to dinner."

"Your letter mentioned you'd be staying in Bart Connor's apartment. We did some restoration work for him a year or two ago."

"It's very good of you to call, Mister Horan."

"Well, I'm very excited by this Picasso you mentioned in your letter. You said it's called 'Vino, Viola, Mademoiselle'?"

"It's been called that. God knows how Picasso thought of it."

"Of course, I'm puzzled why you came all the way from Rome to Boston to engage me as your broker. . . ."

"There's some evidence the painting is in this part of the world. Possibly even in Boston."

"I see. Still, I expect we could have handled it by correspondence."

"As I wrote in my letter, there may be one or two other matters I'd like to consult you about."

"Yes, of course. Anything to be of service. Perhaps I should start by warning you that this painting might not exist."

"It exists."

"I've looked it up, and there is no record of it anywhere that I can find."

"I have a photograph of it."

"Very possibly it does exist. There are a great many Picassos in existence which have never been recorded. On the other hand, the body of Picasso's work very often has been victim to fakes. I'm sure you know his work has been counterfeited more than the work of anyone else in history."

"I do know, yes."

"Well, I wouldn't be giving you professional service if I didn't bring these matters up to you. If such a painting exists, and it's authentic, I'll do everything I can to find it for you and arrange for the purchase."

Rotating blue lights from the roofs of police cars storeys below began to flash against the long, light window curtains. There had been no sound of sirens.

"Are you free to come by tomorrow morning, Mister Fletcher?"

Fletch said, "I'm not sure."

"I was thinking of ten-thirty."

"Ten-thirty will be fine. If I'm free at all."

"Good. You have my address."


"Let's see, you're on Beacon Street across from the Gardens, right?"

"I think so."

Fletch pushed the curtains aside. There were three police cars in the street. Across the street was an iron railing. The darkness beyond had to be a park.

"Then what you do is this: leave your apartment and turn right, that is, east, and go to the end of the Gardens. Then turn left on Arlington Street, that is, away from the river. Newbury Street will be the third block on your right. The gallery is about two and a half blocks down the street."

"Thank you. I've got it."

"I'll send someone down to open the door to you at ten-thirty precisely. We're not a walk-in gallery, you know."

"I wouldn't think so. I'm sorry, Mister Horan, I think there's someone at my door."

"Quite all right. I look forward to seeing you in the morning."

Fletch hung up.

The door buzzer sounded.

It was seven minutes to ten.


"MY NAME's Flynn. Inspector Flynn."

The man in the well-cut, three-piece, brown tweed suit filled the den doorway. His chest and shoulders were enormous, his brown hair full and curly. Between these two masses of overblown brown was a face so small it had the cherubic quality of an eight-year-old boy, or a dwarf. Even with the hair, his head was small in proportion to his body, like a tiny, innocent-looking knob in control of a huge, powerful machine. Nothing indoors had the precise colour of his green eyes. It was the bright, sparkling green of sunlight on a wet spring meadow.

Below the break of his right trouser leg were a half-dozen dots of blood.

"Pardon my pants. I'm fresh from an axe murder."

For such a huge chest cavity, for anyone, for that matter, his voice was incredibly soft and gentle.

Fletch said, "You're an Irish cop."

"I am that."

"I'm sorry." Fletch stood up. "I meant nothing derogatory by that."

Flynn said, "Neither did I."

There was no proffer to shake hands.

As Flynn vacated the doorway, a younger and shorter man came in, carrying a notepad and ballpoint pen. He had the grizzled head of someone fried on a Marine Corps drill ground a score of times, like a drill sergeant. The rubbery skin around his eyes and mouth suggested his eagerness to shove his face in yours, tighten his skin, and shout encouraging obscenities up your nose. In repose, the slack skin gave him the appearance of a petulant basset. His suit and shirt were cheap, ill-fitting, but spotless, and his shoes, even this late on a drizzly day, gleamed.

"This is Grover," said Flynn. "The department doesn't trust me to do my own parking."

He settled himself in a red leather chair.

Fletch sat down.

It was twenty-six minutes past ten.

He remained waiting in the den. A young, uniformed policeman waited with him, standing at parade rest, carefully keeping his eyes averted from Fletch. Beyond the den, other police, plainclothesmen, moved around the apartment. Fletch wondered if any reporters had sneaked in with them. Fletch heard the murmur of their voices, but caught nothing of what they said. Occasionally, a streak of light from a camera flashbulb crossed the hall, from either the left, where the bedrooms were, or the right, where the living room was.

An ambulance crew entered, rolling a folded stretcher across the hall, towards the living room.

"Close the door, will you, Grover? Then make yourself comfortable at the wee desk there. We don't want to miss a word of what this boyo in the exquisite English tailoring has to say."

The uniformed policeman went through the door as Grover closed it.

"Has anyone read you your rights?" Flynn asked.

"The first fuzz through the door."

"Fuzz, is it?"

Fletch said, "Fuzz."

"In more human language," Flynn continued, "I ask you if you don't think you'd be wiser to have your lawyer present while we question you.

"I don't think so."

Flynn said, "What did you hit her with?"

Fletch could not prevent mild surprise, mild humour appearing in his face. He said nothing.

"All right, then." Flynn settled more comfortably in his chair. "Your name is Fletcher?"

"Peter Fletcher," Fletcher said.

"And who is Connors?"

"He owns this apartment. I'm borrowing it from him. He's in Italy."

Flynn leaned forward in his chair. "Do I take it you're not going to confess immediately to this crime?"

He used his voice like an instrument--a very soft, woodland instrument.

"I'm not going to confess to this crime at all."

"And why not?"

"Because I didn't do it."

"The man says he didn't do it, Grover. Have you written that down?"

"Sitting here," Fletch said, "I've been rehearsing what I might tell you."

"I'm sure you have." Elbows on chair arms, massive shoulders hunched, Flynn folded his hands in his lap. "All right, Mister Fletcher. Supposing you recite to us your opening prevarication."

The green eyes clamped on Fletch's face as if to absorb with full credulity every word.

"I arrived from Rome this afternoon. Came here to the apartment. Changed my clothes, went out to dinner. Came back and found the body."

"This is a dandy, Grover. Let me see if I've got it in all its pristine wonder. Mister Fletcher, you say you fly into a strange city, go to an apartment you're borrowing, and first night there you find a gorgeous naked girl you've never seen before in your life murdered on the living room rug. Is that your story, in short form?"


"Well, now. If that doesn't beat the belly of a fish. I trust you're got every word, Grover, however few of them there were."

Fletch said, "I thought it might help us all get to bed earlier."

"'Get to bed', he says. Now, Grover, here's a man who's had a full day. Would you mind terribly if I led the conversation for a while now?"

"Go ahead," Fletch said.

Looking at his watch, Flynn said, "It's been a near regular custom I've had with my wife since we were married sixteen years ago to get me home by two o'clock feeding. So we have that much time." He glanced at the glass of Scotch and water Grover had moved to the edge of the desk blotter. "First I must ask you how much you've had to drink tonight."

"I've had whatever's gone from that glass, Inspector. An ounce of whisky? Less?" Fletch asked, "You really have inspectors in Boston, uh?"

"There is one: me."

"Good grief."

"I'd say that's a most precise definition. I'm greatly taken with it, myself, and I'm sure Grover is--an Inspector of Boston Police as being 'good grief'. The man has his humour, Grover. However, we were speaking of the man's drinking. How much did you have to drink at dinner?"

"A split. A half bottle of wine."

"He'll even define 'split' for us, Grover. A remarkably definitive man. You had nothing to drink before dinner?"

"Nothing. I was eating alone."

"And you're going to tell me you had nothing to drink on the airplane all the way across the Mediterranean Sea and then the full girth of the Atlantic Ocean, water, water everywhere. . . ."

"I had coffee after we took off. A soft drink with lunch, or whatever it was they served. Coffee afterwards."

"Were you travelling first class?"


"The drinks are free in first class, I've heard."

"I had nothing to drink on the airplane, or before boarding the airplane. I had nothing to drink at the airport, nothing here, wine at the restaurant, and this half glass while I've been waiting for you."

"Grover, would you make a note that in my opinion Mister Fletcher is entirely sober?"

"Would you like a drink, Inspector?" Fletch asked.

"Ach, no. I never touch the dirty stuff. The once I had it, the night after being a student in Dublin, it gave me a terrible headache. I woke up the next morning dead. The thing is, this crime of passion would be much easier to understand if you had a bottle or two of the old juice within you."

"You may find that is so," Fletch said. "When you find the murderer."

"Are you a married man yourself, Mister Fletcher?"

"I'm engaged."

"To be married?"

"I expect to be married. Yes."

"And what is the name of this young lady whose luck, at the moment, is very much in question?"


"Now why didn't I guess that myself? Write down 'Andrew', Grover."

"Angela. Angela de Grassi. She's in Italy."

"She's in Italy, too. Grover. Everyone's in Italy except he who has just come from there. Make a social note. She didn't come with you due to her prejudice against the Boston weather?"

"There are some family problems she has to straighten out."

"And what would the nature of such problems be?"

"I attended her father's funeral yesterday, Inspector."

"Ach. Dicey time to leave your true love's side."

"She should be coming over in a few days."

"I see. And what is it you do for a living?"

"I write on art."

"You're an art critic?"

"I don't like the words 'art critic'. I write on the arts."

"You must make a fortune at it, Mister Fletcher. First class air tickets, this lavish, opulent apartment, the clothes you're wearing. . . ."

"I have some money of my own."

"I see. Having money of your own opens up a great many careers which otherwise might be considered marginal. By the way, what is that painting over the desk? You can't see it from where you are."

"It's a Ford Madox Brown."

"It's entirely my style of work."

"Nineteenth-century English."

"Well, that's one thing I'm not, is nineteenth-century English. And who with a touch of humanity in him would be?”


Sean Fagan said...

Ah, I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed Fletch and Flynn together... been a while since I reread that book.

As I told you... sad news.

Sean Fagan said...

Is it McDonald or MacDonald?

Daniel Keys Moran said...

Mcdonald. I've been getting that wrong for 30 years -- I usually manage to remember he wanted the lower case d on the donald, almost always forget it was "mc" and not "mac".

I fixed it.

Steve Perry said...

Crap. Another one gone.

Chevy Chase ruined the movie, but the books are always going to be a delight.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I could enjoy those movies, in a very minor way, if the character's name wasn't "Fletch." If the movie had been "Marvin" or something, I'd have enjoyed it and never thought about it again. But they were dreadful and disprespectful movies in the context of being, allegedly, adaptations. (The second Fletch movie wasn't even an adaptation, it was an original dreadful script, as opposed to an adapted dreadful script.)

Sean Fagan said...

I liked the first movie. After reading the book, I separated the movie into portions that were like the book, portions that were a comedy, and portions that were garbage.

There were enough of the first category that I enjoy rewatching the movie. And enough of the latter that I never bought it on DVD ;).

J.D. Ray said...

Hmmph. Okay, so I'll add this to my reading list. It'll be the first mystery I've read other than Devlin's Razor in over twenty years. But you're right; dialogue-driven exposition is an art form to be appreciated, and this seems well done. It's also a pain to sit and type that much dialogue in, what with all the short paragraphs and quotation marks. Unless, of course, you have a high tech book scanner available. Now that would be cool.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

JD, I didn't type that in -- found it online as a teaser on a website run by Random House. I just cut and pasted.

I'm a big Mcdonald fan, but there are limits.

-dsr- said...

I thought you might appreciate knowing that as a result of this post, I went out and read Confess, Fletch, then Flynn, Flynn's In, and Flynn's World.