Writer Gregory Mcdonald, 71; 'Fletch' Made Him Famous

Journalist-turned-novelist Gregory Mcdonald, who said he built his character I.M. Fletcher on
Journalist-turned-novelist Gregory Mcdonald, who said he built his character I.M. Fletcher on "the myths and legends of the newsroom," was known for what a reviewer called "riotous comic scenes." (By Cheryle Mcdonald)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 13, 2008

Before he wrote the best-selling series of comic mysteries that began with "Fletch," Gregory Mcdonald quit his steady newspaper job in Boston and was trying to make a living as a novelist.

He had published a book nine years earlier, but, at 36 years old and with a family to support, he quickly ran through his savings as well as a bank loan.

"One night I was sitting in the bathtub at 2 a.m.," he told the Associated Press. "I had $18 in assets and no job. As far as anyone could see, I had no future. The next day, my agent called to say, 'Paramount owes you $10,000,' " for the film version of his first novel.

Rescued from the financial precipice, Mr. Mcdonald created the character of I.M. Fletcher, a ne'er-do-well reporter willing to do anything, including murder, for a big paycheck. The Fletch series went on to sell tens of millions of copies.

Mr. Mcdonald, 71, who died Sept. 7 of cancer at his pre-Civil War farm in Pulaski, Tenn., won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America for his first and second books in the Fletch series (there were nine in all). Two were turned into films starring Chevy Chase.

He wrote three other mystery series, dubbed Son of Fletch, Flynn and Skylar, and about a dozen novels that were not mysteries. But it was Fletch who made him rich and famous.

The character, built on "the myths and legends of the newsroom when [reporters] sit back at 3 a.m. and tell stories," turned into an irreverent, witty, anti-establishment reporter-turned-beach bum who found himself in outrageous circumstances. The plots of the books were fast-paced, multi-threaded narratives, spiced with social commentary and laugh-out-loud dialogue.

The author was "a consummate farceur," Jean M. White wrote in The Washington Post's Book World in 1985. "No one writes sharper, wittier repartee. His characters have an off-the-wall zaniness and yet can touch your sympathy. He is the master of orchestrating riotous comic scenes."

The first book left the hero on a beach in Rio de Janeiro with $3 million, an ending the author regretted when it became evident that readers wanted a sequel.

Gregory Christopher Mcdonald was born Feb. 15, 1937, in Shrewsbury, Mass., and graduated from Harvard College in 1958. While in college, he worked as a yacht captain, rescuing stranded yachtsmen. After graduation, he sailed about 30,000 miles around the globe, he once wrote, and also worked as a marine insurance underwriter, worked in Puerto Rico for the Peace Corps and taught high school in Bolton, Mass.

The dark novel he had written in college, "Running Scared," was published in 1964 to good reviews.

In 1966, he was hired by the Boston Globe and wrote for the Sunday magazine, editorial page and arts section. He interviewed icons of the Sixties, including Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman, John Wayne, Andy Warhol and Jack Kerouac.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company