In the late 80’s and early 90’s, fondly remembered television series of the past received made-for-television reunion films. James Boice’s Who Killed the Fonz feels like it could be a long-lost reunion movie for the cast of one of my all-time favorite shows, Happy Days.
Beginning in 1984 (the year that Happy Days finally ended its epic run), Who Killed the Fonz finds Richard Cunningham at a crossroads in his Hollywood career. While he’s had success as a writer, including an Oscar nod, he can’t quite get his dream project off the ground. When his agent tells presents him an offer to make write a Star Wars clone, Richard is less thrilled. However, it’s either write the movie he doesn’t want anything to do with or face the end of chasing his dreams in Hollywood.
Then, Richard receives a call from Milwaukee that his old friend, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli had died in an motorcycle accident. Seems that Fonzie flipped off the front of his bike on a bridge, plunging to his death in the icy waters below. Richard goes back to Milwaukee for the first time in twenty years to bury his old friend and to consider what the next stage in his career will be. (Marion moved out to Hollywood with Richard and Laurie Beth years ago after Howard passed away and they left the famous house to Joanie and Chiachi).
Billed as an 80’s noir thriller, Who Killed the Fonz is a loving homage to the classic series. Boice clearly knows his Happy Days lore, sprinkling in a few nostalgic flashbacks to classic episodes and moments from the series run as Richard comes to terms with the Fonz’s death and that he hasn’t been back to see his old friends in two decades.* He even has Fonzie’s funeral take place at the same funeral home used in the “Fonzie’s Funeral” two-parter late in the run of Richie episodes.
* I will have to call out Boice on one particular flashback that he doesn’t get quite right. Recalling the famous episode where Fonzie did his epic dance, Boice tells us that it’s Joanie who gets the exhausted Fonz back to his feet under threat of a crew cut. That isn’t the case. Jonie and Fonzie bet Joanie’s rival and head cheerleader that if they win, Joanie makes the cheerleading squad and if they lose, Fonzie gets a crewcut. The infamous dance that Fonzie uses to win the dance contest comes after the rival mocks the exhausted Fonz being dragged out on a stretcher that he’ll have to get said crew cut. I know, I know, I’m picking nits here, but that’s just the kind of fan that I am.
But as Richard into the life and death of his old friends, some things just don’t add up. How did Fonzie plunge to his death and was there more involved that meets the eye? And what does a politician running for governor know about why the Fonz passed away?
When I received an e-mail from NetGalley asking me if I wanted to read this book, I couldn’t surf over and hit the request button for this one fast enough. A mystery novel with the death of Fonzie at the center of it seemed right up my alley. Boice wins points on the nostalgia factor alone and his examination of Richard’s dilemma both in his career and trying to find out what happened to the Fonz and his other Milwaukee pals is well done. For the most part, Boice gets the touchstones right and feeling authentic — whether it’s Ralph and Potsie still being part of the band or Arnold’s open but struggling against the Bennigan’s across the street.
Boice blends what we know about the familiar characters with the artists who brought them to life, especially in the story centering on Richard, down to him wanting to move into the world of directing movies.
I will also give Boice credit that he keeps the structure of a “typical” Happy Days episode in how a lot of the events unfold in the novel. To say more would be to give away a lot of the pleasures of the last half of the book (though I will put them in this review behind a big time SPOILER warning so I don’t ruin your enjoyment). But, it’s fun to see how Boice tweaks the conventions and structure of just about any of your favorite Happy Days episodes.
In short, this one is a lot of fun and was a fun hybrid of a story. It may not be the Happy Days reunion movie, but it’s pretty darn cool-a-mundo.
OK, so I have to talk now about the the last half of the book. So, if you don’t want to know, stop reading now. I’m going to get into huge SPOILERS here.
So, as most of us know, the “typical” plot of a Happy Days episode was that Richie and company would get into some type of situation and quickly get in over their heads, requiring the Fonz to show up at the last minute and bail whoever was in trouble out. (Think the episode where Richie becomes a basketball star or the time Joanie tried to prove she was cool by hanging out with the wrong kids). Boice teases us with the reveal of Fonzie showing up to save the day not once, but twice. About two-thirds of the way into the story, Richie starts to run afoul of the police who may or may not have had a role in Fonzie’s death, only to have someone dressed like the Fonz and on a motorcycle that looks like his show up and bail Richard out.
Of course, this turns out not to be the Fonz. Boice saves the Fonz’s big entrance (seriously, you can almost hear the applause track) for when the crooked politician and cop catch Richie, Ralph, and Potsie trying to prove said politician is crooked. Richie is seconds away from death, disgrace, and being framed as an adulterer when the lightning cracks and Fonzie shows up to save everyone. Turns out the Fonz’s old girlfriends have been hiding him out since it was the Fonz who uncovered the crooked politicians to win the governorship and then renege on his big campaign promise. Fonzie threatened to expose him, leading to his “death.”
And yet, as much as I should be rolling my eyes at this series of events, I couldn’t help but love EVERY LAST SECOND of it as the Fonz shows up one more time to save his buddies. It felt like the most Happy Days of Happy Days episode EVER and it was at this point that I found myself wanting to see this book turned into the reunion special we never saw.
In the interest of full disclosure, I received a digital ARC of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.