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June 09, 1985|JACK MILES

In San Francisco last month, at the convention of the American Booksellers Association, Warner Books honored most of its hundreds of authors only with a spot on the order blank. A dozen or so star authors merited, in addition, giant, spotlighted posters. Only one author, so far as I can tell, actually had his book displayed in the big-as-a-house exhibit. The exception, however, was a spectacular exception.

"Fletch Won," by mystery writer Gregory Mcdonald, was celebrated by Warner not just with a poster of the lean, gray-haired, thin-lipped Mcdonald in the darkest of dark glasses but also with, literally, thousands of copies of a paperback pre-print of his book itself, which will not be published until next August. The giant publisher was showcasing this book and this author with a vengeance.

I had met Mcdonald for breakfast the day before the convention opened. A columnist for the Boston Globe in the late '60s and early '70s, he published "Fletch," his first mystery novel, in 1974. (The movie version of "Fletch," starring Chevy Chase as the cynical but resourceful investigative reporter, has just been released.) Since 1974, there have been seven other novels in the series, all with the name Fletch in the title. "Fletch Won" is the latest, the perhaps climactic ninth, like Beethoven's last symphony.

Mcdonald does not compare himself to Beethoven. He does note that his nine Fletch novels are, if you add them up, of about the length of "Gone With the Wind," and he wonders whether Fletch is not, by now, nearly ready for retirement.

Not by coincidence, Warner has just published Mcdonald's collected Globe columns as "The Education of Gregory Mcdonald, Writings About America 1966-1973," the title of the collection being taken from its epilogue, in which Mcdonald reports to his college classmates (Harvard, 1958) on the occasion of their 25th reunion. Mas ensena la vida que la universidad, he seems to say. The "education" that has nourished his career as a mystery writer is not the one he acquired at Harvard but the one he acquired after Harvard during his years on the street, covering everyone from John Wayne to Joan Baez to Father Groppi (now a happy bus driver, he reports).

Mcdonald's first book, "Running Scared," which he published as a Harvard senior, was perhaps the first extended report to the then still untroubled majority about the troubled mood of the growing counter-cultural minority. The relationship between "Running Scared" and the Globe columns that followed it is clear. But what about the mysteries? I asked. Are they a farewell to those arms or their continuation?

Mcdonald's answer led us into a discussion of how British and American mysteries differ. In the classic British mysteries, crime disrupts the social order, the crime is solved, and the social order is restored. Emotionally, the mood is one of calm even among the victims. These things happen, the reader infers, but in a civilized country, we are equal to them and, by intelligence and diligence, we shall prevail over them.

In American mysteries, by contrast, crime exposes the social order. When the crime is solved, the social order itself is revealed to be something other than the innocent victims (though not their cynical rescuer) thought it to be. At the end of the story, the reader is not returned to peaceful slumber in a peaceful kingdom. Rather, he is warned to be on guard and perhaps, very implicitly, challenged to do something about this!

"Crossword puzzle" is Mcdonald's verbal shorthand for mysteries of the British type. The metaphor is a good one. All transactions are smooth in a crossword puzzle. Each word knows its place and stays in it. The large words have their large spaces by the most evident kind of logic (who would challenge spelling?), and the small words just as clearly need no more than they have. When a large word crosses paths with a small one--let us say eleemosynary with ye , they do their business quickly and with perfect mutual understanding. The order between them is more than civil, it is natural, it is almost divine. Accordingly, should two competing letters turn up on the same space, nothing is amiss that patient thought and reasonable energy cannot presently set aright. One of the words simply has not understood how we do things in this puzzle and must be put in its proper place or expelled outright.

If there is a game that might serve as metaphor for mysteries of the American sort, I should think it would be poker. The crossword puzzle is what, in game theory, is called a game of perfect information. Poker is a game of imperfect information; and where information leaves off in poker, simulation and dissimulation begin, not to speak of the psychological and emotional tricks that can foil them.

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