Fans of television’s classic quiz show, The Price is Right, will recognize 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 similarly titled an award-winning 2017 novel. The connection both these books have to their eponymous games is the notion that seemingly random developments steer someone’s fate.
Patrick County, Virginia, public defender Andy Hughes finds himself saddled once again with the thankless job of representing serial offender Damian Bullins. And these are Bullins’s most serious charges yet. This time he’s 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—dies in the county jail, and his dog Patches won’t leave the jailhouse property. He’s waiting for Zeb, as always, but this time Zeb isn’t coming for him. 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, as he transparently schemes to pervert justice. Apparently, he’s aware this is an era when the more outlandish a claim is, the more likely it is to gain credence. The rascal just might get away with murder.
Clark’s characters are interesting and highly individual, with just the right amount of backstory. The beautiful areas of rural southwest Virginia on the North Carolina state line are woven into the story, as are its small towns and small-town sensibilities.
Author Clark is a retired Virginia circuit court judge who served on the bench for some 27 years. His experience shows in several riveting courtroom scenes. No questioning the legal underpinnings of this tale, either. Clark makes clear the limits and strains on the public defender system when it’s faced with a penniless, manipulative defendant like Damian Bullins. Yet, 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. 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.
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