Saturday, September 13, 2008

Farewell Gregory Mcdonald

It's too bad that Gregory Mcdonald is best known for his "Fletch" mysteries, generally by way of the two movies made from those books. The goofiness of the movies gives the reader no hint that the books themselves were constructed painstakingly, with the reserve and elegance of a craftsmen who pays equal attention to the overall project and each tiny detail.

In particular, the observation of each character is so satisfying that long after the "mystery" is solved, the books repay multiple readings as generously, or more so, than the initial plunge into a new Mcdonald offering.

He's gone now, dying last Sunday of cancer at 71.

I tried writing a fan letter to the gentleman a few years ago, and mailed it off to the most recent publisher I could find. Some weeks later, it was returned unopened. Mcdonald was, in fact, a very reserved man (which is a very different thing from being a shy man). When I wanted a photograph to accompany this article, I found only one blurred photo from 1985. The attached photo is from his 1994 book “Fletch Reflected”, taken by his wife Cheryle, but it is hardly changed from a photo taken a decade earlier. The impression of wary self-containment appears in every pic of him I’ve seen.

No matter. No photograph could convey as much as one or two pages of his text does.

One reason I keep his books around is because of what Mcdonald leaves out. In particular, his dialogue pulls the weight, with almost no orienting phrases such as -- "Frederick walked to the window and looked at the rain. "She told me she was in trouble, but I never expected this," he whispered." Mcdonald would take Frederick's dialogue and let it stand alone. If he felt he needed the window, the rain, and the whispering he would find another, more information-dense way of presenting them. Not only is this tighter writing, but the reader has to actively engage the dialogue and pull all the meaning out of it, just as though they were eavesdropping on people in the next room.

He also leaves out emotions. Occasionally he will let you inside a character's head in order to trace a memory or train of thought. But he does is much less frequently than some writers -- I'm thinking of one wildly popular writer of supernatural bodice rippers who spends, I swear, half her time inside her main character's head. I enjoy her books, but they are highly colored renaissance brocade tapestries, compared to Mcdonald's Japanese dry brush painting.

Not to say emotion is missing from his books -- the storylines and characters’ actions and reactions are full of conflict and deeply felt passions and compulsions. But the reader has to unfold them and consider them -- they are not just tumbled out on the floor like a spilled suitcase.

I chose to quote from one of his books -- his most recent title, from 2003, the fourth in a series dealing with Inspector Francis Xavier Flynn of the Boston police. Although Flynn lives in a (possibly?) parallel universe containing jetplane propelled nongovernmental security organizations, you can essentially ignore that for most of the books. There is excitement enough in a simple conversation:

"Is this a police car?" Professor Loveson looked around the back seat and at equipment strange to him in the front of the car.
Flynn said, "Yes. Driven by police Sergeant Richard T. Whelan. This is Professor Louis Loveson, Grover. You have his address."
Grover sighed.
"Perhaps we shouldn't talk while the sergeant is driving," Loveson said. "These Cambridge streets are so dangerous."
"Especially when Grover is driving."
"I've never been in a police car before."
"Good for you."
"I've ridden donkeys, elephants, troop carriers, of course, but I've never been in a police car before." He patted the backseat. "Have real criminals set here on this seat, do you suppose? Murderers, rapists, plagiarists?"
"I suppose so. More forgers, I suspect, then plagiarists."
"Is there a difference?"
"We are better at catching forgers, aren't we, Grover?"
Loveson said, "This rather brings home to me the reality of my situation. How ashamed of my father would be to know I had ever written in a police car. Under any circumstances."
To Flynn the professor seemed exceedingly small, sitting next to him on the backseat. Flynn's 15-year-old sons were bigger. Even Winnie, at nine, had more substance, more presence than him. As the car went under streetlights, nothing but bone outlined the knees of the professor's gray trousers.
"Tell me, Professor," Flynn said. "What would you think if you came across a young man, 16 years old, to be exact, standing tall against a tree in a foggy wood at night, with his ear nailed close to the tree?"
Wide-eyed, Grover turned around and looked at Flynn.
"Have you ever?" Loveson asked.
"Last night."
"Really! How very interesting. You see, that's what I mean. Andre Gide once wrote, ‘when all else is forgotten, what remains is culture.’ Core culture, I call it. Of what ethnic is this boy?"
"Italian American."
"Yes. European, surely. And this happened locally?"
"A strange and simple act of that sort, nailing a boy’s ear to a tree, quite common in 15th century Europe, for example, suddenly turns up last night in the Boston area. Probably there has been no such incident on the shores, well, ever before."
"Someone could have just made it up, invented it for himself, thought it's an amusing thing to do."
"The idea, possibly," Loveson said. "But not the attitude behind the idea."
"And how do you describe that attitude?" Flynn asked. "The attitude that makes nailing a boy’s ear to a tree seem a good idea?"
"Punitive, of course. More than that. To mortify him. Wouldn't you say?"
In the front seat, Grover banged the steering wheel with the butt of his sand.
"Did you help the boy get free of the tree, Flynn?"
"I might not have, if I knew who had nailed him to the tree and why."
"He wouldn't tell you?"
"He would not. Once he understood something of the history of his situation, that he had been left there to rip his own ear from the tree, he assured me he would do so immediately after I left. I believed him."
"Saying is quite else from doing."
"Also, my daughter is fond of him. I think she prefers him with two flappy ears instead of one."
"Ah, daughters! I remember. I had one once. She could get me to do, or not do, anything. Sergeant Whelan, I live in this block. Halfway down on the right." To Flynn, Loveson said, "Your daughter’s young friend displeased someone, or some persons, in a very particular way."
"What way?" Flynn asked. "What would be the nature of his crime to cause someone to nail his ear to a tree?"
Loveson said," I suspect he did something unmanly."
"Sorry I can't invite you in, Flynn --"
Flynn had gotten out of the car first. "You are inviting me in, Professor. I need to see where and how you live, for security reasons, if for none other. And to talk with you further."
On the curb, he took Loveson's elbow in hand.
The professor looked up to read to Flynn's eyes. Suddenly, he regained the wise twinkle in his own. "It's either that or you'll take me downtown to headquarters, is that it? Do you still use a rubber hose?"
"Of course," Flynn said. "How else do you make the daisies grow?"
"Well, all right." Loveson began to step across the sidewalk. "Don't blame me for anything you see. Or hear. Or think. Or smell."

--Flynn’s World, 2003

Thanks, Mr. Mcdonald. Fare thee well.


No comments: