Formalism matters in the mystery novel. Breaking rules and flying in the face of convention can have its rewards, but most avid readers of crime will tell you that nothing satisfies like that tale that falls within the well-marked boundaries of its genre. Confess, Fletch, Gregory McDonald’s second novel featuring the intrepid wiseass Irwin Maurice Fletcher, is a mystery that takes its cues from the golden age of detective fiction: It features a naked corpse in a locked room, a disparate list of morally challenged suspects, and even introduces an eccentric police detective, an enormous Irish cop with a penchant for chamomile tea and Bach. That he balances these elements within the framework of a Fletch novel shows how good McDonald, who died earlier this year, was when he on the top of his game. Among McDonald’s books, Confess, Fletch is second only to its predecessor Fletch, and fans of traditional mysteries might easily find it to be the best.
These days, sadly, Fletch is more commonly associated with Chevy Chase’s portrayal in the 1985 film Fletch than with McDonald’s words. (Though I’m a Chevy Chase fan, the casting always seemed wrong to me. The Fletch I know from the books has more in common with a young Paul Newman — good looks and dry humor — than with the look-at-me stylings of Saturday Night Live cast member.)
The character of Fletch debuted in the 1974 novel named for him, a book that won the prestigious Edgar Award for Best First Novel. Confess, Fletch came out two years later and won the Edgar again, the only time that a book and its sequel have achieved this feat. Both awards were equally justified. Fletch is a sharply written thriller that’s both dryly funny and tightly plotted. In it, I. M. Fletcher, a twice-married, twice-divorced southern California journalist who looks like a beach-bum, is working undercover as a junkie living on the beach, while trying to crack a drug-trafficking story. He is approached by a wealthy man with an offer. The man claims to be dying of cancer and wants to be murdered. Fletch, sensing a story, agrees to commit the crime for money, but begins, instead, to investigate.
Good sequels replicate the accomplishments of their predecessors. Even better sequels alter the terrain in the process. The Fletch of the first novel is an underpaid reporter, hounded by his editors, dodging divorce lawyers, and usually dressed in cut-off jeans and T-shirts. When Fletch shows up in the sequel, he has become, due to the purloined briefcase full of money from the first book, a man of leisure, an art critic living in a villa in Italy, who has just flown to a misty Boston in October to locate a collection of paintings stolen from the family of his Italian fiancée. But Fletch in tweeds is essentially unchanged from Fletch in swim trunks. He is still gleefully nonconformist, consistently one step ahead of his adversaries, and full of acid one-liners.
The spine of Confess, Fletch is the murder mystery. Fletch arrives in Boston, brings his luggage to the apartment he has arranged in advance to borrow, then goes out to dinner. When he returns there is a naked female corpse in the living room. It turns out that the victim had been the first-class air hostess on the flight he had arrived on, and that Fletch’s fingerprints are the only ones on the murder weapon, a bottle of scotch.
The case falls into the lap of Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn, notoriously reluctant to make an arrest till he is sure of the guilt of the suspect. It seems pretty clear that in introducing the character of Flynn, McDonald had a spin-off in mind. The inspector, like Fletch, is a nonconformist and a wit. He drives his subordinate — the forever grumbling Grover — insane with gut-instinct policing and a lack of real training. He is also an Irish teetotaler, happily married with four children, and a man with a past as a World War II spy. It’s a lot of quirk to pile onto a supporting cast-member, but McDonald pulls it off — barely. (And Flynn did go on to star in his own series of books.)
There are other plot threads in Confess, Fletch: the missing art pieces, Fletch’s upcoming marriage, even a random arsonist makes an appearance. McDonald, in his spare, journalistic prose-style — few adjectives, short declarative sentences — pulls these threads together in the end with a precision Agatha Christie would have been proud of. The solution to the murder is particularly satisfying, and like all first-rate works in the genre, McDonald plants clues along the way for the sharp-eyed reader. The murderer, when revealed, is neither outlandish nor obvious.
I got hold of the first few Fletch novels in the early 1980s, when I was a high-school bookworm. I devoured them, not just because they were male escapist fantasy, but because they were brisk, well-written tales that, at times, were laugh-out-loud funny. Think P. G. Wodehouse by way of Hemingway.
When McDonald died this year at age 71, his obits made it clear that, like his characters, he had a strong independent streak, refusing to crank out yearly cookie-cutter versions of his mysteries and uncomfortable in promoting them. Semi-reclusive and fiercely political, he published novels only sporadically. They were, also, admittedly, of varying degrees of quality. Along with the first two Fletch novels I would heartily recommend only Fletch’s Fortune and Fletch and the Widow Bradley.
If it seems as though I’m damning him with faint praise, I’m not. To have written back-to-back mysteries as good as the first two Fletch novels is a remarkable achievement. Even more remarkable is how different they are from one another. McDonald took a muckraking journalist and dropped him into a classic body-in-the-sitting room mystery, and arguably wrote the most entertaining book of his career