(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Gregory Mcdonald created two detective series that have attracted serious attention from critics. The first series, Fletch, with its wildly comic tone, has gained widespread readership. The second series, the Francis Xavier Flynn novels, takes a more traditional detective approach. It is built around Flynn, a wily Irish Boston detective who had his genesis as a character in the second Fletch novel, Confess, Fletch.

Irwin Maurice Fletcher, or Fletch, is not a detective, private or otherwise, but rather a journalist who ultimately becomes a freelance reporter and troubleshooter. As a journalist, Fletch has ample freedom of movement to follow whatever crisis or crime he happens to stumble across. Fletch is financially independent, thanks to money he has fortuitously acquired in his first caper; this money affords him further freedom to pursue any situation that arises. For Fletch, life has no plan or design. Life is haphazard. Things happen and Fletch, following his instincts, reacts. In Fletch, Mcdonald has created an anarchic character, one that determines the moral boundaries of his own life. Though Fletch is physically attractive, he never bothers much about what he wears or what he drives. He is not a materialist, but if he has money, he is going to enjoy it. He is not introspective like detectives such as Robert Parker’s Spenser. He is not self-analytical, nor does he try to analyze others; he accepts things and people for what they are. Fletch is not emotional and sentimental; making it difficult to identify with Fletch on that level, and the reader is not moved by Mcdonald’s detective stories. What the reader can count on is that Fletch will always be entertaining.

As a character, Fletch is not guided by a clear set of inviolable principles. Indeed, he views rules as made to be broken. He makes up methods as he goes along; he employs no clear investigative strategy. Whatever he thinks will work, he tries. He lies outrageously and shamelessly to whatever degree the situation seems to require. Fletch’s off-the-cuff, unsystematic approach results in judgments of which the reader may not always approve. Neither a truly admirable figure nor a thoroughgoing rogue, he is designed to keep the reader off balance. In Fletch and the Widow Bradley (1981), for example, he goes to ridiculous lengths to return twenty-five thousand dollars he could easily have kept, while in Fletch he expresses no qualms about keeping a much larger sum of money belonging to someone else.

Clearly, Fletch inhabits a world that is morally ambiguous. Mcdonald does not preach about right and wrong. Readers are intuitively aware of this fact, and while they may not approve of everything Fletch does, they accept his style as a reflection of the reality of modern life, as Fletch himself does. In any case, like most antiheroes, he usually does the right thing in the end.

In most of the Fletch novels, Mcdonald creates multiple plotlines. For example, in Fletch and the Widow Bradley, Fletch finds a wallet containing twenty-five thousand dollars before being fired from his reporting job for writing a story quoting a man who has been dead for two years. The story develops along both lines, with Fletch trying to redeem himself with the newspaper but never forgetting his quest for the owner of the wallet. Such dual plots are sometimes but not always connected in Mcdonald’s novels.

However, Mcdonald’s work is primarily built around the creation of character through the liberal use of dialogue; characters are largely defined by what they say. It is characterization that is at the center of his writing, and there are times when plot becomes secondary. The plots in the Fletch series are greatly exaggerated and cannot be taken seriously. Characters who are eccentric and offbeat are ubiquitous throughout the series: actor Frederick Mooney, who pretends drunkenness and orates his way through life; Louise Habeck, a genuinely comic character who thinks she is still married to the husband who divorced her years ago; the Widow Bradley’s husband, Tom, supposedly dead two years, who is actually alive and well and living in New York after a sex-change operation. These are Mcdonald’s people and he captures them as broadly comic exaggerations. Such characters would have no place in a novel by Raymond Chandler or Ross Macdonald.

Mcdonald’s Flynn series is considerably different than the Fletch series, though both have a common origin. Francis Xavier Flynn is introduced in the second Fletch novel, Confess, Fletch. Fletch enters an apartment he has borrowed in Boston and finds a beautiful naked woman, who, unfortunately, has been murdered. Police Inspector Flynn, with whom Fletch develops a curious relationship, investigates the murder. Both Fletch and Flynn admire and respect one another, but each recognizes the limitations of the friendship.

Flynn is a brilliant investigator. He is much closer to the traditional concept of a detective as one who investigates and detects. Flynn is iconoclastic and his methods are unorthodox, but he is much more the procedural detective than Fletch. Mcdonald gives Flynn a strange and intriguing background. He is an Irishman who was brought up in Germany during World War II. The SS shot his parents at the end of the war,...

(The entire section is 2177 words.)