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Gregory McDonald Dead

Giles News is reporting that Gregory McDonald, the tremendously talented author of the Fletch series has died. I am now making efforts to confirm this. If this is true, this is a tremendous loss to American letters.

[UPDATE: I have confirmed by phone with Charlie of the Giles County Ambulance Service that Gregory McDonald passed away on Sunday. As soon as I have a chance to collect my thoughts and feelings, I plan to offer a full-length tribute here. I’m still in shock.]

I first encountered the Fletch books in the library when I was twelve. The ratty paperbacks were bound in taut cellophane. I didn’t understand why they hadn’t been released in hardcover. But as it turned out, there were complex reasons. I had, of course, known about the Chevy Chase movie. But Chase’s wisecracks (as conveyed through Andrew Bergman’s screenplay) weren’t even close to McDonald’s great barbs. The first Fletch book was driven almost entirely by dialogue, keeping up a momentum that sucked me into the text. The story goes that mystery purists were upset that McDonald published the Fletch books as paperback originals. They were also angered that McDonald had used sex and wit to draw readers into his novels. But McDonald wanted ordinary people to read them. McDonald’s Fletch books, however, were far from ordinary.

Here’s the first page from Fletch:

“What’s your name?”

“Fletch.”

“What’s your full name?”

“Fletcher.”

“What’s your first name?”

“Irwin.”

“What?”

“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?”

“Of course.”

“Fair enough. For a thousand bucks I can listen. What do you want me to do?”

“I want you to murder me.”

The black shoes tainted with sand came across the oriental rug. The man took an envelope from an inside pocket of his suit jacket and dropped it into Fletch’s lap. Inside were ten one-hundred-dollar bills.

Now what sane person wouldn’t want to continue reading this story? This opening is as gripping as the first page of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice often taught in literature classes, but it likewise carries a concern for precision reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. McDonald stubbornly resists description until the very end. He lets his characters convey the specifics through dialogue. We learn that Fletch is a casual sort who can’t abide fussy types using proper names. We learn immediately that he’s sharp, that he’s not going to permit himself to get caught up in illegal activity without considering all the details. We learn that the mysterious interlocutor is more concerned with specifics rather than logistics.

And then there’s that magnificent amateur quality juxtaposed against this questioner’s wealth. The sandy shoes indicate that this mysterious questioner probably isn’t what you might call experienced. But he does have a lot of money.

McDonald was able to set this very careful relationship, along with its many nuances, in a mere 138 words. And he was able to do this almost entirely through dialogue. He was an extraordinary writer. And what made him so extraordinary was his ability to merge this concern for detail with a tremendous ear for dialogue, down to the comma, producing books that could be enjoyed and appreciated by both popular and literary audiences. (A telling indicator of his mass appeal is that filmmaker Kevin Smith learned to write dialogue by reading the Fletch books. Smith snatched up all the movie rights to the Fletch series many years ago, but movies have yet to appear.)

But because McDonald insisted that ordinary readers were capable of basic intelligence, because he insisted that his books should be priced affordably, he was not taken as seriously as he deserved by the old guard. Fletch, nevertheless, would go on to win an Edgar Award for Best Novel. And the book’s sequel, Confess, Fletch, would win for Best Paperback Original.

By all accounts, McDonald was a private person. But Vintage Crime reissued all of the Fletch books a few years ago. And the work will live on.

RELATED: Thankfully, Don Swaim talked with McDonald twice. From the 1987 interview:

MCDONALD: There is a very exciting thing going on in this country. And that is that there have begun to be small publishers in places like Boston, Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, wherever. And they are not doing what the big commercial houses are doing, of trying to publish the imitation of last year’s imitation of last year’s imitation. And I’m sorry that I can’t cite you chapter and verse. But I am finding that these small publishing houses are creating or letting be published for the first time in a long time in American history and American literature, and they are publishing very exciting stuff, very real stuff, very original stuff, and taking the risks that the big commercial houses wouldn’t do. And they are nurturing the work, and they are nurturing the writers in a way that the big commercial houses don’t do. And I don’t mind at all throwing my lot in with them.

[UPDATE: Mere hours after this post went up, The Rap Sheet’s Cameron Hughes offered his “tribute,” seeing fit to use the same excerpt, similar phrasings, and similar examples from this post. Gee, thanks a lot, assholes.]

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12 Comments

  1. Followed the link here from Ms. Weinman’s blog. That is truely sad news. I remember reading one of the Fletch books on the train years ago and trying not to giggle like a fool. People must have thought I was mad. My firm handled a couple plagiarism cases—that’s a serious charge. I read over the pieces and noted some obvious similarities: You’re both writing about the death of Gregory McDonald; you both quote the first page of dialogue from Fletch. Other than that I don’t see any overt borrowings much less anything rising to the level of theft. The pieces read like 2 appreciations from 2 fans coming from similar places of admiration. That’s a natural piece of dialogue to quote as it’s probably the most famous thing that author ever wrote—wasn’t it included on the front cover of the paperback? I had a law review article (of all things) plagiarised once so I can see why you’d be frustrated. But I think perhaps you owe Mr. Hughes an apology. Both of these are warm tributes and should stand without the acrimony. Accusing others of being “assholes” on a page celebrating the life of such a treasured writer is simply crass.

  2. Me: “This opening is as gripping as the first page of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice often taught in literature classes, but it likewise carries a concern for precision reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.”

    Cameron: “Told with the pace of a 1940s screwball comedy, or to be more modern, the speedy dialogue of Gilmore Girls”

    Me: “Now what sane person wouldn’t want to continue reading this story?”

    Cameron: “Who wouldn’t want to read the rest of that book”

    Me: “in a mere 138 words”

    Cameron: “at only 208 pages”

    And so on. And so on. It’s as if Cameron took a look at my piece, pilfered specific phrasings, inserted different examples into sentences to appear slightly different, etcera.

    I’ve emailed Cameron. He’s openly admitted to me that he read this post, offered his apology, but both he and the editor of The Rap Sheet have refused to make changes, use a different excerpt, or even link back to this piece. In short, these two gentlemen are dishonorable. Even when I gave them a few additional examples he might wish to pursue.

    To say that I’m disappointed in the Rap Sheet’s lack of editorial standards here would be a colossal understatement.

  3. well put, Ed. Though I can only pray Kevin Smith never gets around to making those Fletch movies, as he (Smith) is about as hard-edged as a ball of cotton candy, and despite their comedy, the Fletch books do have some serious grit to them…

  4. This example of schoolyard fisticuffs has really hit the point of ridiculousness. Therefore, I shall post here the same note I sent to Mr. Champion this morning:

    “Cameron Hughes is a young writer who felt intimidated by your accusations. If he felt any need to “apologize” for having used the same obvious excerpt that you did, it was because of that inexperience. The fact that his feelings about Mcdonald’s demise are similar to your own is hardly surprising. If he was inspired by your write-up, it is hardly grounds for declaring war on The Rap Sheet or anybody associated with demonstrates pettiness of your part, not dishonor on his. I do not find the similarities condemning, nor all that obvious.

    “I am sorry that your feelings are hurt, but I believe you are blowing this WAY out of proportion. There are numerous more important things to address in this world than whether another writer has the same sympathies as you do.
    We have all felt at one point or another that somebody else has trod upon the same journalistic path as we have. The mature thing is to recognize its insignificance in the scheme of things, and move on.”

    J. Kingston Pierce
    Editor, The Rap Sheet

  5. Jeff:

    Since you insist on bringing this out into the open, let’s get the facts straight.

    1. Cameron openly copied many elements of my post. Figuring that Cameron simply got a little excited and wishing to give him the benefit of the doubt, I then emailed him. Cameron acknowledged that he had indeed read my post and emailed me a McDonald excerpt that he thought would serve in lieu of the one he had pilfered from me (incidentally, NOT the exact copy on the front page of the book, but rather the first 138 words of the book, which sits now on my desk).

    At this point, everything was kosher. He asked me to email you. I explained the circumstances, even gave you and Cameron a few suggestions that I never asked credit for. And instead of performing the simple task of either (a) referring back to this post or (b) using a different excerpt — both options I would have been perfectly okay with — you proceeded to write an arrogant email back to me claiming that the results, despite the considerable evidence presented to you, were considerably different. The two posts here clearly indicate that this is not the case at all.

    2. It was not intimidation that caused Cameron, who seems to be a much more decent gentleman than you are, to apologize. It was the facts presented before him by me.

    3. It is not that his feelings are similar. A certain amount of emotional overlap is understandable. It is the fact that his language, phrasing, examples, and quoted excerpt are exceptionally similar. (See the above examples.) There is a fundamental difference between being “inspired” by something, accrediting the original source for those following the bread crumbs, and blatantly pilfering it.

    4. Likewise, the “young and inexperienced” defense is absurd and wouldn’t stand up in a court of law. Cameron is not a minor. From my understanding, he is 24. He is an adult and, inexperienced or no, he should be held accountable for his actionsn.

    Both you and Cameron have indeed committed a dishonorable and indecent pilfering of elements presented here. Cameron at least acknowledges it. As I said, all this was easily rectifiable. I would have done the same thing had someone rightly called me out. The mature thing for you to have done is to realize that Cameron fucked up severely here and adjusted the post accordingly. But instead you cling to this tenuous hard line.

    Your actions are those of an insufferable asshole who hasn’t bothered to consider the time and feeling that went into this post. And it certainly doesn’t befit someone who claims to be an editor.

  6. Anyway.

    There’s a Fletch book in my car that I bought a few weeks ago and haven’t yet read. Based on *this* post, it’ll definitely get read soon.

  7. Hold on, I admitted to copying the excerpt which you do not own nor do you have domain over it because you used it first. I copied nothing else, and last I checked, similar phrasing, intentional or not isn’t un-ethical and is employed in millions of College essays everyday.

    That is not plagiarism. Your claims are silly. You say he accomplished a lot in a mere 138 words, I talk about how much he accomplished in a very short novel that most twice that length would not. And in case I am mistaken, when I say 1940’s screwball comedies, that has nothing to do with The Postman rings twice. Nor do I see what Gilmore Girls has to do with a play concerning two minor characters from a Shakespeare play.

  8. That’s not plagiarism. If anything, paraphrasing would be a more accurate description, but even then, I don’t think they’re that similar, other than quoting the same page. To be honest, if I were writing a tribute, that’d be the part I’d quote, too, as it was my first exposure to McDonald, and the one that’s always stuck with me.

  9. Rod Lott: Thanks for trying to keep the peace here. But in light of Jeff’s hypocritical stance (he seems to have no problem expressing his outrage at The Rap Sheet here: http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2008/09/pilot-programs.html), he remains in my view a two-faced asshole and a coward to boot (as does Cameron, who is NOT a gentleman after all). I’ll leave these limp dicks to fly in the wind.

    Patrick: Fantastic! You’re in for a treat. One of the great things about the Fletch series is the way that Mcdonald created a fascinating story arc, filling in the details as he went along (and had the money to research it).

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