Not sure what made me revisit this novel which I first read when it came out in paperback in the mid-70’s. I’ve just read it again and as I remembered it’s an extremely clever, well written mystery featuring a smart mouthed investigative reporter named I.M. Fletcher, or “Fletch” as he’s better known. Many people will recognize the title from the movie version starring Chevy Chase in the lead role from the 80’s and a sequel. Personally, I found the films rather stupid and nowhere near as good as the book. Mcdonald wrote several “Fletch” sequels and I read a few when they came out but was mostly disappointed, he was unable to recapture the same vibe as he did in the original story.
There are two main plots, when we first meet Fletch working on an assignment trying to discover the supplier of illicit drugs at a local California beach. He’s undercover masquerading as just another one of the many chemically damaged beach bums hanging around their distributor, an enigmatic fellow named “Fat Sam” (AKA: Vatsayana). Despite near constant surveillance Fletch is unable to figure out how ‘Sam’ is getting his stash replenished and his editor’s are hard on his case to wrap up the story. While he’s staking out the beach Fletch is approached by a young, well to do looking man who offers him $1000 to listen to a business proposition. Intrigued, Fletch agrees and the second plot is revealed; the man whose name is Alan Stanwyk wants to pay Fletch $25,000 to kill him in a faked burglary attempt. Stanwyk reveals that he’s dying from a form of untreatable cancer and he wants his family to benefit from his hefty life insurance policy worth $3.5 million. Fletch negotiates his payout up to $50,000 and takes tells Stanwyk he’ll take the job. Fletcher knows there’s a story here and he’s got about a week to find out what it is.
Mcdonald deftly weaves multiple details together with both story lines; at times it’s hard to keep up with all of the many threads to the beach drug story and the increasingly complicated investigation into the mysterious Mr. Stanwyk. Fletch is glib and fast on his feet assuming a variety of personas in his investigation of the wealthy Stanwyk as he tries to verify the authenticity of his disease and desire to be killed. This attribute of Fletch which is slickly done in the book is where the film versions don’t stand up. The big screen Fletch is some sort of master of disguise adopting all kinds of ridiculous false identities. They are entirely silly and unconvincing despite Chevy Chase’s best efforts mugging for all he’s worth. On paper I.M. Fletcher is a smooth talker and does a lot of his best work on the phone just using his voice and wits and other times he might don tennis clothes to blend in at a country club but he’s never wearing any fake mustaches or wigs like the movie. The effect is much more subtle and believable.
Further complicating our protagonist’s life are two ex-wives who are both taking him to court for failure to pay alimony (they also both still love him), their pesky lawyers who keep showing up at the newspaper looking for him, and his boss who demands he pick up a Bronze Star Medal from the USMC in a formal ceremony or be fired. Did I mention that the court appointments and medal presentation are all on the same day?!
Mcdonald apparently is another one of many authors out there who don’t know anything about guns but yet write about them. Here he talks about a .38 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver having a “bullet clip”, (technically a magazine) but revolvers do not use them. Revolvers have a cylinder that in modern pistols are integrated into the frame of the gun which bullets are loaded into. Semi-automatic hand guns have removable magazines for loading ammunition.
It’s a masterful performance, at one point Fletcher describes himself as a ‘liar with an excellent memory’ and it is true. The reader will start to wonder how the author (and of course Fletch) is going to pull all this together by the end? Mcdonald does it in fine style with a conclusion that’s both amusing and satisfying. A quick read at less than 300 pages I enjoyed “Fletch” all over again some 40+ years later; strongly recommended.