Once again, retired Virginia circuit court judge Martin Clark proves how adept he is at writing the contemporary legal thriller. “The Substitution Order” is his newest since “The Jezebel Remedy” in 2015, and he continues to give more widely read authors like John Grisham a run for their money.
How does he do it? First of all, check out the titles of even his earliest novels. Any chance of disappointment from a book called “The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living” or “Plain Heathen Mischief”? (Both are cheeky introductions to Clark’s literary world.)
Then check out his relentlessly engaging characters. There’s a young judge “waiting to hit bottom” in one novel, a defrocked Baptist minister in another. Husband-and-wife lawyers are in yet another, partners who time and again conjure up memories of Nick and Nora Charles, Dashiell Hammett’s married sleuths from “The Thin Man.”
Layer onto that a firm belief that justice is a personal choice, sometimes “outside” the legal system. Top it all off with an unwavering contention that, despite those on the make who sometimes seem to be winning, doing the right thing is still the path to be on.
So it goes with “The Substitution Order.”
Kevin Moore is a, well, “defrocked” lawyer. At 42 years of age and because of a dope conviction, Kevin is intent on making restitution for his mistakes and on getting his law license restored.
To make this happen, he is managing SUBstitution, “a Subway knock-off” serving almost-fresh sandwiches in the small town of Stuart, Va.
One day at the sub shop, a white-haired man (“Albino Platinum Ice would have to be the color on the Clairol box”) invites Kevin to be part of a multi-million-dollar scam, an offer Kevin immediately turns down.
Then things really start to go south.
Ava, Kevin’s steadfast and patient wife of 18 years, decides to leave her job teaching high school and divorce Kevin. (“I’m the only husband in history who’s being vilified for offering too much in a divorce settlement.”)
Then Kevin comes to suspect he is being punished for refusing to be part of the scam.
And then he has a stroke.
There are vigorous secondary characters to stand by Kevin in his ongoing crisis. There’s Blaine, his 20-year-old assistant manager at SUBstitution, generous, mostly honest Blaine, who only wants to accrue enough money for his college tuition, Blaine who easily makes his way into any aspect of the internet. Plus there’s Nelson, the mutt they rescue from a garbage dumpster.
Then there’s Dan Duggan, Kevin’s law school buddy, who still isn’t afraid of answering Kevin’s questions. There’s Lily Heath, Kevin’s physical therapist, for whom he develops a growing devotion. And there’s Esther Mulberry, Kevin’s bemused final counsel.
So, what’s a guy “being made the patsy in a five-million-dollar scam” to do but use the law as it has rarely been used? Says Kevin: “I’ve lost the love of my life, almost stroked out, forfeited my livelihood and most of my money, embarrassed my profession and been reduced to running a bad sandwich shop. My immediate friends are a mongrel dog and a pot-dealing coworker half my age. Jail’s not the worst of it.”
And what’s Martin Clark to do but savor writing about the mostly legal ways Kevin Moore “bamboozles” his way through the legal landscape?
“The Substitution Order” is totally disarming. It never cheats; its clues are always in evidence. It is so tightly woven that its final chapter — its “epilogue” — is going to leave readers smiling for days even as it brings an occasional tear to the eye. It is, in short, the best book so far from one of the South’s best-kept secrets.
Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.