Film

Confess, Fletch

The Chevy Chase films shouldn't deter you from reading Gregory McDonald's masterful and often hilarious Fletch mysteries


Confess, Fletch

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780375713484
Author: Gregory Mcdonald
Price: $12.00
Length: 192
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2002-03
Amazon

Fletch's Fortune

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780375713552
Author: Gregory Mcdonald
Price: $12.00
Length: 256
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2002-03
Amazon

Fletch and the Widow Bradley

Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 9780375713514
Author: Gregory Mcdonald
Price: $11.00
Length: 160
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2002-07
Amazon

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

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image