April 04, 2011
Gregory McDonald has been dead for less than three years, yet already he seems in danger of being forgotten. A Google search turns up no recent chatter about his novels, and very little since his productive life as a writer came to an end in the late 1990s.
Aside from occasional late-night cable screenings of Fletch, a 1985 Universal Pictures movie starring Chevy Chase, McDonald’s most intriguing character also seems to be fading from American popular culture.
That’s a damn shame because McDonald was a gifted storyteller who peopled his crisply-written, very funny mysteries with irresistibly quirky characters. And behind the humor, he had some serious things to say about a host of American institutions from organized religion to the press.
Literary immortality is an unpredictable thing. Jim Thompson, the author of more than 30 novels including The Grifters and The Killer Inside Me, was largely ignored during his lifetime; but he became the darling of critics and Hollywood producers within a decade of his death in 1977. McDonald’s26 books, 17 of them mysteries, sold tens of millions of copies, won two prestigious Edgar Awards, and inspired four feature films during his lifetime; yet most young crime-fiction fans I talk to today have never heard of him.
I first met McDonald in 1986, long before I dreamed of writing my first crime novel, Rogue Island, which was just short-listed for the same “best first novel” Edgar that McDonald won for Fletch. To get my foot in his door, I arranged to interview him for a newspaper Sunday magazine; but my real purpose was to see what I could learn from him about writing. As it turned out, I didn’t need an excuse. McDonald had thought a lot about his craft and enjoyed talking about it.
We met at his homey barn-red cape, the only house on the suburban Massachusetts street that looked either affordable or lived-in. He ushered me through his back door and promptly called me “chap.” Although he was born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, he had managed to acquire some of the vocabulary (but not the accent) of the British upper class.
He was a skinny six-footer with a mat of silver hair and a nose sharp enough to draw blood. Bony knees and elbows protruded from his khaki shorts and shirt. All he needed was a safari hat to complete the great white hunter outfit.
Previously, McDonald had worked as a reporter for The Boston Globe, where he was assigned to explain the 1960s counterculture to a baffled readership. By the time I met him, he was at the height of his popularity as a novelist. Eight of his nine Fletch novels and two of his three novels featuring Boston Police Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn were already in print. Later, he would write two other abbreviated crime series, the Son of Fletch and the Skylar novels; but Fletch and Flynn would remain his finest creations.
Although both are distinctly unconventional crime-fiction heroes, they are nothing alike. Flynn is a dapper, courtly middle-aged family man who understands the motives of criminals so well that he is reluctant to arrest them. Fletch is a slovenly investigative reporter and beach bum whose manner and methods are inconsistent with steady employment.
McDonald’s fast-paced crime novels are about 90 percent dialogue. The opening lines of Fletch provide a taste:
“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?”
“Is it criminal? I mean, what you want me to do?”
“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to murder me.”
McDonald’s study, a converted first-floor living room, held a cluttered desk and a wall of good books. Carolyn Chute’s stunningly original first novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine, recently read, lay on a nearby table. The day was sunny and warm, so we adjourned to lawn chairs in his back yard, which McDonald called “the garden.” He offered store-bought brownies and diet 7Up.
Here’s how the conversation went:
BD: Why do so many people still read mystery novels? The form has been around for a long time.
GM: So-called mystery fiction seems to be having more of a posterity than any other form of literature in English. There are all sorts of reasons for it. One, it is a pedestrian art form. It is about our daily lives. It is about buses that don’t come on time, dogs that don’t bark, clocks that are broken, telephones that don’t work when it’s a matter of life and death. The mainstream American novel has very largely been, over the last generation, that which has been written by chaps at universities teaching creative writing courses. It’s rarefied. It is too abstract. It is about people with problems that are not terribly interesting to the rest of us. Secondly, as our society is becoming increasingly complex, the apparently simple form of the mystery, which is terribly hard to achieve, reassures people that when there is a confusion, a complexity, there can be a solution.
BD:Perhaps another part of the appeal is that many mystery-story heroes are noble misfits. They do things most of us would love to do, but can’t. They say things most of us would love to say, but don’t dare.
GM:I think that’s true. Most of them are heroic in one way or another. But the best mysteries are about more than heroes solving problems. I want my books to work as entertainment, as fun, as mystery, as suspense, as humor. But I also want each of them to be distinctly thematic. They are about how our self-created institutions work and don’t work. I think a book should be about all those things. It is always my hope for them.
BD:Reading Fletch and Flynn, I am always reminded of the Marx Brothers. The books are so efficient at popping balloons, so effective at taking on pompous people and sacred institutions.
GM: Well, that’s a compliment. I am deeply interested in our institutions. Journalism, the church, political institutions. What is elitism, as you see in Flynn’s Inn. Those are also the things that I see a lot of human anxiety about and feel I can address in novel form.
BD: You write very well. You could be writing in other genres, and from time to time you have. Why write mysteries?
GM: Because I enjoy having readers. Certainly you could take what I am trying to say and fly off to the university and write much longer, heavier books along the same themes. Somehow, I would rather have 20 million readers than 200.
BD: American crime novels are usually written in spare language. The Fletch novels take that to extremes.
GM: I work very hard at being simple. By the time a person is 18 years old today, he has seen 21,000 hours of film at 24 frames per second, and he has just incredible images already built into his consciousness or unconsciousness. Back when Sir Walter Scott was working, he was writing for people who hadn’t been 50 miles from their houses. So if he was describing a street in Edinburgh, let alone Paris, he’d have to describe what was going on and what everyone was doing. Now, unless you are writing about something really exotic, you have this incredible bank on which to draw. Where Sir Walter Scott used 7,000 words, I can get it down to seven by conjuring the images that are already there.
BD:In most modern crime fiction, the world is portrayed as a dangerous and chaotic place; and the hero is a tough guy who tries to clean up one little part of it. Fletch and Flynn are quite different.
GM:Fletch believes in the social contract. If that is violated in any way whatsoever, the whole thing unravels. He is the sort of person who, if someone gives him more change than he deserves, he will return it. On the other hand, if people are lying to him, he has no qualms about misrepresenting himself to uncover the truth. Then he gets out of town as quickly as possible. Flynn, on the other hand, is a man who says that by the time he was 20 he was sick of the truth. He’s had enough of it. He is always playing between the truths, between the borders, just marveling the possibilities of human behavior. He goes at it more like a musician trying to strike a harmony out of the chaos.
BD:They are opposites.
GM: I think so, yes. But neither could have existed before the 1960s. In the great mystery novels of the ‘30s and ‘40s, the woman was either a Madonna or a doll. Neither Fletch nor Flynn have this regard for women. Women are their equals, their friends. Their regard for authority is also completely new and contemporary. They are not anti-authoritarian for the hell of it, nor do they give in to authority for any reason. They see it for what it is—something set up by humans that is fine only when it works.
BD:Why does Fletch, like so many detective heroes, have such a smart mouth?
GM:There are two different sorts of detective characters. One is the Eric Amber type, an ordinary person put into extraordinary circumstances. If you don’t have that—if instead you are talking about our lives, about the most ordinary world, you need an extraordinary character. One with an offbeat view of the world. The humor points up the difference between him and the world he is trying to make right, the absurdity of himself—that is, man—in his world.
BD:You’ve called your books “post-psychiatric.” What do you mean by that?
GM:Civilizations that have been under the influence of the Freudians, which is after all only the Western civilizations for the last hundred years, are prone to think of themselves as victims. Victims of this, victims of that, victims of the other thing. And that is their main neurosis. They spend much of their time and energy figuring out how they have been victimized and why and making it all articulate. Fletch and Flynn are post-psychiatric because they refuse to be victims. They may be victimized, but they have the wit and wisdom and energy to say: “Right, lads, that happened. Now up and at ‘em.”
BD:Traditional fictional detectives like Raymond Chandler’sPhilip Marlowe and Robert B. Parker’s Spenser have a different attitude toward the world than either Fletch or Flynn. These other detectives are more cynical, less accepting. The world does not live up to their standards, to their codes of honor.
GM:“Code” is the right word. It is the Hemingway code. It’s very clear where it is coming from. To me, the excitement and the fun of living right now is we are in a secular society and there is no code. Democracy does not encourage absolutes, and the fun and excitement of contemporary life is that we have to operate in the gray areas.
BD:Traditionally, the private detective was always a loner, but Parker’s Spenser has a friend and a lover now. Fletch may be a loner, but Flynn has a family. It’s something new in the genre, I think.
GM:Yes, it is. I think there’s a reason for it. When you had the lone detective, Sherlock Holmes, that sort of character, you had most people locked into marriage and family. Therefore, the loner was a more romantic figure. Now we have many people in various states of singlehood, before and after marriage. The married figure is suddenly a very romantic character. Flynn receives as much sexy fan mail as Fletch does, which is astonishing to everybody. Isn’t that something?
BD:Have there been things in the books that your editors have objected to?
GM:Oh, yes. The Buck Passes Flynn caused an enormous flap. One thing was that the editor was sure that presidents don’t pee alone. (In the novel, the president is nearly abducted from a men’s room.) I have been with presidents. They pee alone.
BD:What about the severed hand that fell from an airplane in Flynn?
GM:That caused more riot than you can imagine. The mystery novel is supposed to be a closed universe, and all questions are supposed to be answered.
BD:But Flynn carried the hand around with him for the whole book, and it ended up having nothing to do with his case.
GM:It was absolutely a hand from the sky. You might have thought I’d gone out and smashed my Edgar Allen Poes in public.
BD:Why, decades after Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, are there still people who don’t take crime fiction seriously as literature?
GM:It is my complaint that it is taken too seriously. Every university is teaching mini-courses on the mystery, and they are being oversubscribed. I certainly hope we are not receiving so much attention and analysis that it will become less of the people. But maybe the critic and the academic are getting brighter. Maybe they are realizing, for example, that the extreme simplicity of James Cain is a virtue and not an accident. I think people had been thinking, well, we’re just natural talents and not schooled, disciplined talents. I think they looked at Cain and said, that’s just the way he writes. And they completely undervalued him—probably one of the half-dozen great technical writing geniuses of all time. Maybe now our façade of simplicity is being penetrated, but I hope not destroyed, by these chappies.
BD:Have you always wanted to be a writer?
GM:I never wanted to be a writer. I don’t want to be one now. To me, writing is not an occupation; it’s not a job; it’s not an avocation. It’s a response to life. I’ve never understood people who say, “I decided to be a writer.” That’s like saying you want to be a pine tree. Either you are a pine tree, or you are not.
BD:Did Fletch come out of your experiences at The Boston Globe? I’ve heard that, like Fletch, you had difficulty staying out of trouble. You ended up on Nixon’s enemies list. You got beaten up by union workers in the newspaper parking lot.
GM:(Laughing) Well, how can I answer that? I get excited about ideas. I was born excited about form and structure. When I get onto something, it does fill me up; and I will go with it at any price until I get the thing resolved. It’s my chess game; it’s my sport.
BD: Have you ever noticed how many mystery writers had previous lives? You were a journalist. Chandler was a business executive. Dick Francis was a jockey. Parker worked for an insurance company . . .
GM:I think it is why we are so popular compared to your social darlings, the academic writers. We have spent time on the street. We know how things work and how bloody aggravating it can be when they don’t work. Rather than going straight from the university and thinking we have something marvelous to address to people slogging along in their daily lives.
BD:Describe how you work:
GM:I have ideas. I see things. I try to forget them; I try to suppress. An idea keeps popping up fuller and fuller over a period of years. When it becomes irrepressible, I write. How long does this take? I began thinking of Flynn’s Inn 19 years before I wrote it. Sometimes it’s two or three years. Then I put it down in pen and ink. I am terribly interested in the spatial relations on a piece of paper. I am very interested in pacing. At that point, I am shaping tone and correcting myself, making the words in my head suitable for the page.
BD:Are your revisions substantial?
GM:Oh, yes. But it’s essentially all there. Some sections are completely there, word for word. Some, believe it or not, are too verbose even in my head. The changes are mostly tightening. I start with characters. If you’ve got the right characters and the right situations, that’s the source of everything. It’s where all the electricity comes from—all the energy, plot, humor. You are being a witness. You are enjoying them.
BD:Are your characters flights of imagination or do you use bits and pieces of people you know?
GM:I’m convinced that in every human being, there is everything that is in everybody else—that we all have all human characteristics. I don’t think we can perceive anybody else’s characteristics unless we have some of it in ourselves. Therefore, it is all basically oneself.
BD:Are you happy with the movie, Fletch?
GM:I didn’t write the movie. It’s not the way I would have written it. But if I had written it, it probably wouldn’t be the success it is. There are things in it I get a great kick out of.
BD:I read that you rejected attempts to cast Burt Reynolds and Mick Jagger as Fletch.
GM:Everybody else who tried it had a mean twist or was too much of a wise guy. There is none of that in Chevy Chase. He has the puckish quality that is Fletch.