Leth, Fletch, Flynn

We had that Jørgen Leth fellow up at the Art College, talking about his work. Wonderfully immodest fellow. If his interlocutor, fellow documentarist Emma Davie, complimented him on the effectiveness of a moment in 66 SCENES FROM AMERICA, he would respond, “Yes, I think it’s excellent.” Refreshing, in a way.

Mr. Leth, who was charm itself, stated that he was a big fan of American crime fiction, naming Hammett and Chandler as influences. So after the talk, I introduced myself and said I’d been reading Gregory McDonald. “Ye-es?” he asked, looking uncertain, so I switched back to Hammett and told him his shots were like Hammett sentences, terse but poetic. He agreed.

But I HAVE been reading Gregory McDonald, damnit. So I’ll tell you about it. There’s a movie connection, of course.

Third ID down — apparently, non-ironic blackface was still cool in 1984.

I picked up Confess, Fletch and Carioca Fletch in the Thrift bookshop, thinking, “My, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Fletch book in the flesh,” and also thinking they were probably quite good if there were lots of them, a dubious logic, I know.

It turns out that McDonald had a kind of genius for plotting, exercised to its full in his first Fletch books. But he did kind of paint himself into a corner early on. Fletch is an investigative reporter, which allows him entry into storylines of crime and intrigue, but at the end of the first novel the slightly amoral (or unconventionally moral) hero absconds with a huge amount of cash, so he never has to work again. But McDonald has to work that much harder, concocting situations which can ensnare his gentleman of leisure and force him to do some investigating. Thus Confess, Fletch has our hero framed for murder, and Fletch’s Fortune (I was hooked, I bought more) has him blackmailed into gathering evidence for the intelligence service (a murder is swiftly committed). These first three books are excellent, though I have some issues with the Fletch character, and maybe with McDonald’s character. Hey, it was the seventies/eighties…

At a certain point, McDonald evidently threw up his hands and decided to write prequels, since Fletch the overworked and underappreciated investigative journalist was far easier to insert into unfolding narratives than Fletch the rich bum. But oddly, going by Carioca Fletch and Fletch and the Widow Bradley, McDonald’s plotting skill diminished at some point, so these books are far less satisfying. I haven’t finished them all yet though, and I’m curious to see whether Fletch’s Moxie, which I think is the last of the original run, is good.

No, I’m not re-watching FLETCH, Michael Ritchie’s reasonably faithful film of the first book. I enjoyed it when it came out, when I believe I was rather young. I’ve glanced at it. There’s a problem with Chevy Chase being served up to us in tennis shorts with an implied assumption that this is something we want to see. McDonald has a bit of a narcissistic thing going on with his creation, the more witty and handsome version of himself (OK, the wit is all his, since he writes it, but he also gets to write the feed lines) and it’s disconcerting to see this embodied in Chase. Apart from his odd, unhandsome face, Chase has the problem that we’ve now seen him age, and all the signs are there in his youthful prototype. To watch him is to see his hairline creeping up and his waistline expand, if only in one’s imagination. It’s too much like looking in the mirror for me.

Otherwise, though, he has the smugness right, I must say.

It’s weird looking at the film and seeing a lot of the same stuff from the book, but rendered in a high-gloss, plastinated style that’s a lot less real than the pulp paper and print version. The best thing about it, apart from a perpetually surprised-looking Gina Davis (she just looks amazed to find herself in a movie — it’s adorable) is the smart casting of Tim Matheson as villain. Admittedly, Matheson should have Chase’s role so it’s not THAT smart to dangle him before our eyes, but he DID get Chase’s role in ANIMAL HOUSE, when Chase demanded too much money or something, so casting him as a man who (heavy spoiler alert, skip to next para if concerned) wants to swap places with Chase as part of a DIABOLICAL SCHEME, is a really nice touch.

I don’t really detect much of Michael Ritchie’s undoubted directorial talent in this, just as I don’t in THE GOLDEN CHILD (spits).

Haven’t looked at FLETCH LIVES. It’s not based on a McDonald book. Which makes the filmmakers stupid — I think Fletch’s Fortune would have provided Chase all the necessary opportunities to do his thing.

McDonald also wrote The Brave, source of an ill-fated movie directed by Johnny Depp. Has anyone seen it?

An early McDonald book was filmed by David Hemmings. The film is now ALMOST lost, but it did give us this, the worst movie poster ever drawn. 

The best thing about Fletch, though, is it introduced me to Flynn. Flynn is a much more lovable character than Fletch. He’s the Irish-born detective who plays cat and mouse with our hero in Confess, Fletch, and either McDonald liked him so much he ran with him into his own set of four books, or he designed him from the start as a character he could introduce to his readers via the Fletch series and then branch off with. McDonald’s banter is always great, and Flynn’s use of it to bamboozle and annoy suspects, subordinates and his bosses (only Fletch and Flynn’s spymaster Zero and Flynn’s expansive family really “get” him) is a joy.

McDonald writes a kind of stage Irish pretty well — it’s consistent, anyway. I don’t know if my Irish friends will find him embarrassing.

Flynn is the one who should have been in the movies, not Fletch. Ach, isn’t that always the way?

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