Fans of the American game show The Price is Right will recognise the Plinko in the title of Martin Clark’s new legal thriller. It’s a juiced-up game not dissimilar to Pachinko, the Japanese gambling game that served as the title for the award-winning 2017 novel. The idea that seemingly random developments steer someone’s fate, like a game of chance, underlies both of these books.
Patrick County, Virginia, public defender Andy Hughes finds himself saddled again with the thankless job of representing the serial offender Damian Bullins on his most serious charges yet. This time he will be accused of murdering the African American wife of Mormon pastor Cole Benson. He’s even confessed. But… The book follows the incredible twists and turns – the Plinko bounces – that propel this case from disaster to potential success.
Andy is a smart, caring guy, with a new girlfriend and an eight-year-old son. Early on, one of the county’s persistent drunks and petty criminals – whom staff of the public defender’s office call ‘regulars’ – died in the county jail, and his dog Patches won’t leave the jailhouse property. He’s waiting for Zeb, once again, but Zeb isn’t coming. Patches ends up part of the Andy Hughes household too.
By contrast, Bullins is a hot mess. Drugs and liquor don’t improve the logic he applies to his situation, but he isn’t stupid. In fact, Hughes and his boss Vikram Kapil believe Bullins may be a little too clever in his ploys to outwit the system. His ability to twist every development in the case to serve his strange logic is simultaneously amusing and horrifying. It’s frustrating to see how Bullins schemes to pervert justice in this case, but since we seem to live in an era when the more outlandish a claim is, the more likely it is to gain credence, you’ll start to think that the rascal just might get away with murder.
Author Clark is a retired Virginia circuit court judge who served on the bench for some 27 years. The result is several riveting courtroom scenes. No questioning the legal underpinnings of this tale, either. In the United States, one principle of law is that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a defence and another is that the accused is presumed innocent unless proved otherwise. The limits and strains on the public defender system when it’s faced with a penniless, manipulative defendant like Damian Bullins are made clear. Despite giving every respect to the legal intricacies of the proceedings, Clark never gets bogged down. His writing is clear, and the story moves forward briskly.
Clark’s characters are interesting and highly individual, with just the right amount of backstory. Andy and Vikram are quite likeable. Andy’s girlfriend works in his office and at times I found her responses to situations a bit puzzling, but within the range of the credible.
Rural southwest Virginia on the North Carolina state line has some beautiful areas that are woven into the story, as are its small towns and small-town sensibilities. It may be a bit challenging to the locals to accept Reverend Benson’s racially mixed marriage, but that notwithstanding, in this Baptist-dominated area, Cole Benson’s Mormonism is enough to set him apart.
The county also reflects a sense of history, as its neighbouring county is Henry and Patriot Patrick Henry lived in this region for a time. Unlike other parts of Virginia, where the black population is a third or more, African Americans make up less than five percent of the Patrick County’s population, and so the elephant in the room for most stories set in the South can be safely put on the back burner. Characters’ race is simply treated matter-of-factly. In fact the only character who spouts racist sentiments is – no surprise here – Damian Bullins.
Watching Andy Hughes try to live up to the ethical tenets of his profession in the face of a thoroughly reprehensible defendant is a struggle worth witnessing.
Rare Bird Books
CFL Rating: 4 Stars