One difference is that the world McDonald creates for his journalist protagonist has dangers and tragedies large and small; it is a real world with realistic consequences, a place where end-of-the-line junkies are an overdose away from death and the ideas that justice will prevail and the guilty will be punished are not certainties. Another detail is that the humor is not merely there to provide a superficial layer of entertainment akin to a television sitcom or Saturday Night Live sketch, but it is used to define Fletch’s personality and his attitude toward the editors, interview subjects, and ex-wives with whom he must interact. As the reader experiences the story through the third-person limited narrative perspective of Fletch, the reporter’s sarcasm and amusing role-playing ties us to the character and makes it easy to root for him.
McDonald controls the pace nicely, and the “A” story involving Alan Stanwyck and the murder proposition and the “B” story, the search for the beachside drug supplier, alternate smartly before coming together in the final chapter. Frequent readers of contemporary crime and noir novels will likely guess the answers to both story threads before they’re provided, but the journey is still highly enjoyable.
For me, the most innovative technique in the Fletch books is the journalist variation on the whodunit suspect interview: often using an alias and playing a character – insurance adjuster, property management representative, lawyer – Fletcher questions a person to tease out information about someone else. Often they are phone calls, and McDonald presents these conversations as spare, dialogue-centered exchanges in keeping with an investigative reporter’s transcripts. No adverbial flourishes here, of the “he admitted reluctantly” or “she said with a breathy sigh under her words” variety, and that streamlining of talk is both effectively focused and feels aligned with the spirit of contemporary journalism.
The book does carry more than a whiff of of-its-time sexism and misogyny, as some of the supporting female characters here include clingy ex-wives squeezing Fletch for alimony while still begging for another bedroom tumble with him and women with an axe to grind who are sleeping their way up the ladder, as with Fletch’s newspaper editor and supervisor. (On another note, one alimony lawyer is a homosexual who wears “pants with no pockets” and considers the notion of looking the other way on collection in exchange for sexual favors from the tanned and lean beachcomber.) The most intelligent and sympathetic woman character, Stanwyck’s wife Joan, also winds up sleeping with Fletch, so it’s difficult not to be reminded that this 1970s plotline is very much driven and defined by the male characters that populate it and profit by its schemes.