Book Report: Fletch (Gregory Mcdonald, 1974)

Fletch (Gregory Mcdonald, 1974)It’s taken me a long time to finally delve into Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch book series, although I can’t give you a good reason why. I have loved the first movie for a few decades, so you’d think I would want to consume all I can about the character right from the source. But inertia is a powerful force, and so it is that I’ve finally started my journey this week.

So, the original Fletch from 1974. If you’re reading this I’m guessing you’ve seen the movie but not read the book, and want to know how closely the former follows the latter. So let’s go ahead and get the story differences out of the way now. Needless to say, spoiler alert.

  • Book Fletch is a blonde, not dark-haired like Chevy Chase.
  • The Geena Davis movie role (Larry) is named Clara Snow in the book, and Fletch has a rather hostile relationship with her. And in the book she is sleeping with Frank the editor. Speaking of which…
  • Frank in the book goes beyond slightly bumbling into outright incompetent and an alcoholic.
  • Gummy is a white teenager in the book.
  • In perhaps the biggest divergence, the Alan Stanwyk/drug-dealing police chief storylines are both present in the novel but are totally unrelated. Stanwyk still dies at the end, but only because he was mistaken for Fletch by the chief.
  • Fletch has mutliple ex-wives in the novel, but just one in the movie.
  • In the book, Stanwyk’s parents live in Pennsylvania, as does Sally Cavanaugh. Also, Sally has a young son from another man.
  • Stanwyk in the book is carrying on an affair with a former employee of the aviation company he runs.
  • In the book, Fletch is close to a female teenage runaway who is addicted to heroin. She dies and is buried at the beach.
  • Novel Fletch is a former Marine and was awarded the Bronze Star. Although nothing in the movie contradicts this outright, I assume it’s not the case.

OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s rap. As you might be able to glean from some of the plot differences, Mcdonald’s novel is considerably darker than the movie. Fletch carries on a quasi-romantic relationship with a teenage runaway who is addicted to smack and has turned to prostitution for drug money. She dies at his place and he buries her in a sleeping bag on the beach.

But it’s not all dark. It wasn’t a huge stretch to turn this material into an admittedly dry screwball comedy, after all. Mcdonald’s I.M. Fletcher is still quick with a comeback, and the ending reveal of how he so effortlessly manipulated his bosses, his ex-wives, and their lawyers is both cruel and hilarious.

Really what separates book Fletch from movie Fletch is substance. Mcdonald’s character has depth, interesting backstory, and an apparent — if not skewed — sense of morality. Chase’s Fletch is mostly a vehicle to deliver deadpan jokes and comebacks (“It’s all ball bearings nowadays!”). The former feels like a character from the grittier early ’70s, while the latter is clearly a product of the glittery mid-’80s.

The point here is this — I highly recommend reading Fletch if you’re into investigative fiction. Just be aware that while the story does resemble that of the movie, the experience is totally different.

I suppose it’s unfair to spend so much time comparing an original novel to a Hollywood-ized movie treatment, but it’s just not possible for me to escape that here. I do plan on reading more books in the Fletch series — there are 11 in total — so I should be able to deal with them in more of a vacuum.

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