Nothing seems to turn out as expected for the protagonist of The Substitution Order (Knopf, 2019). Roanoke attorney Kevin Moore has been disbarred. His wife has left him—with good cause. He’s working at a Patrick County sandwich shop, “a Subway knockoff called SUBstitution,” which sounds like rock bottom, but he’s still got further to fall: he’s being set up by a far-reaching syndicate in an insurance scam.
Author Martin Clark, retired judge and master of colorful legal thrillers, is back with another page turner. Clark’s narrator is smart and observant, and the reader is is in good hands throughout the quickly moving plot. The book (out on July 9) is peppered with strong description and sharp commentary on the current state of things. Check out this sentence describing Judge Tyler Morris:
He sees the world in the black-and-white shades of a 1960s small-town chamber of commerce president, and for defendants like me, that means any drug use is viewed as a corrupt weakness, contagious and leftist and anti-police and anti-American and exactly what’s wrong with this dadgum country of ours.
BOOK CITY ★ Roanoke: Kevin Moore’s not innocent, nor is he as guilty as he appears. What about this situation appeals to you as an author?
Martin Clark: First off, many thanks for reading The Substitution Order, and thanks also for the thoughtful questions. I’m grateful. An early reader described this book as Ocean’s Eleven crossed with Breaking Bad and Perry Mason. The attraction for me—the “appeal” as you put it—is creating a likeable, flawed underdog and sending him through the challenges and difficulties you just mentioned, and then giving the reader a realistic, unexpected and satisfying ending. As for “nothing turning out as expected,” that’s usually a good thing in the legal-thriller business.
BCR: There’s a mix of the real and fictional in the book, so for those who know the area, there’s an added layer of fun. You even wrote yourself into the book. It’s a tricky balance, I’m sure. Were there any real places or names written into the book that you felt, by the final draft, you had to take out?
MC: It’s interesting that you think I wrote myself into the book. I understand your reference, and of course, only local and regional readers will perhaps register that particular riff the same way you do. That said, The Substitution Order is not any kind of experimental fiction or metaphysical trick—for instance, I recall that Bret Easton Ellis fictionalized himself and Jay McInerney and Gary Fisketjon in Lunar Park, and that’s a whole different kettle of fish. There’s just a very small, playful wink that happens to perfectly support and carry a story point—the history behind it isn’t unique to me these days, not at all. And what’s the classic line? All fiction is a little biography, and all biography is a little fiction. To answer your precise question, I only base characters on folks I like or admire, and every vaguely identifiable character in the book is treated well, so there were no final cuts.
BCR: There’s rich description that brings even minor characters to life. Take the Sutphin girl:
She’s wearing flannel pajama bottoms, the fabric pilled and grimy. Her hair’s a mess, straight, dirty and brown. She’s hardscrabble bony, pasty white, braless under a T-shirt and covered in tats, none of them worth a damn, amateur ink that some dolt applied with a safety pin and a cigarette lighter. This is exactly how she looked when she went to bed on a floor mattress last night, exactly how she’ll look the entire day, exactly how she’ll look tomorrow.
It’s both funny and heartbreaking. How do you see passages like this specifically working in the book?
MC: My writing idol, the late Larry Brown, believed that well developed characters can drive a story and hold a reader’s attention even more so than a slam-bang plot. I’m more of a plot guy, but I think adding the right amount of detail and scene-painting can really boost a story, so long as you don’t overdo it or detract from the bigger narratives. Some readers who are expecting a typical, bare-bones, rocket-fast legal thriller are dismayed by my “extras” in terms of character development and humor and life’s nitty-gritty dilemmas, but I think these details make it easier to invest in the story and truly pull for a character—Kevin Moore, in this novel—to come out on top.
BCR: How have your decades of work in the judicial system shaped your approach to understanding your characters?
MC: I’m not the world’s greatest writer, nor am I an exceptional storyteller, but I can describe better than just about anyone exactly what goes on in a courtroom and the people who wind up on trial—all the drama and heartbreak and quirks and Byzantine tales. Most readers are interested in the justice system—there’s so much at stake every day—so an accurate peek behind the velvet curtains usually makes for good fiction, and my courtroom time has given me a clear understanding of the people who find themselves seated at the defense table.
BCR: The book has a lot to say about our perspectives on the essence of people. Are we redeemable? Or are some people just too far gone, “immutable”? Kevin himself seems of two minds on this at times. So, are we redeemable?
MC: I suppose it depends on what you mean. Spiritually, most of us believe that we are redeemable, though it seems noteworthy that during my twenty-eight years as a judge, I saw the same defendants doing the same stuff for almost three decades with no discernable probability of improvement, this despite our best efforts, everything from jail to counseling to rehab to GED classes to free rides to a job. Sorry to sound pessimistic, but ask most cops, judges or lawyers, and they’ll tell you the same thing—some defendants never change, no matter what. Their core is set and locked in. As an aside, one of the last cases I heard as a judge involved a third-generation defendant—I’d sentenced both her grandfather and father to the penitentiary—and her dad was her supplier for the drug deals that brought her to court. It seems almost Old-Testament Biblical sometimes—the curse does seem immutable and runs through multiple generations.
BCR: I definitely didn’t read the work as altogether pessimistic. “Free-hearted” is a great term you share for a generosity of spirit in the people of Patrick County and the region. “They’re neighborly and normally eager to pitch in, traits born of necessity and decades of traded favors.” It seems to fit the characters in the book, even when they’re struggling and under pressures of their own. What do you see inhibiting and promoting this sense of interdependence and generosity in the lives we lead today?
MC: To be clear, that term was used to describe a very specific part of Patrick County: Meadows of Dan. “The mountain,” as we call it, remains a wonderfully special place in terms of generosity and community kindness. Twenty years ago, the goodwill and “free-hearted” commitment to our neighbors that are hallmarks of Meadows of Dan were present everywhere in this region. That’s not always the case now, though Patrick County as a whole still retains a lot of neighborly spirit. I’m not the person to ask why things have changed, why there’s so much envy, discord and finger-wagging these days, both here in Southside and in the world. I just watched a packed Canadian arena cheer when Kevin Durant snapped his Achilles and hit the floor in the NBA playoffs—inexplicable, dreadful behavior that’s a far cry from people pitching in to make better circumstances for one another. I have no idea as to the cause or the cure.
BCR: It’s a tall order, but maybe in the next book! Tell us about the inclusion of Gardner Turman’s WWII letters. Kevin spends time at his cousin’s house organizing family mementos. We get several passages of a 20-page letter from Gardner to Hava. What should the reader be taking from these passages? Was Gardner a real member of your family?
MC: Thanks for asking. Gardner was indeed a real person who wrote that very real letter to my wife’s grandmother. He was a POW in World War II. I use sections of his narrative word for word in the novel. The passages are interesting and compelling as freestanding history, but they also mirror and inform Kevin’s struggles and the harsh circumstances he’s facing—his battle—though obviously, Gardner’s suffering was far more profound as a German POW.
BCR: Thanks for sharing the letter. I’m going to go back and reread those sections tonight. The rest of The Substitution Order is downright fun to read. Where was it the most fun to write? Was it in the plotting, the description, dialogue…?
MC: I appreciate the kind words. I write books for one reason: to entertain people. This was in fact a fun book to write, and I think that comes through. I really enjoyed shaping the plot and its resolution. Still, my editor at Knopf remarked—and I’m proud of this–that prior to this novel, I’d always had “a story to tell, but nothing to say,” but he felt this book is different, inasmuch as there’s some decent, usable wisdom at the end. Almost dying—as I did in late 2015—will tend to make you a bit more insightful.
BCR: Well, you definitely don’t need to do that again, and we’re glad that you’re back at it. I agree on the insight: there was some heft in the connections between characters, some suggestion of how we might better be in the world. Now that the book has launched, what are you looking forward to about its life in the world?
MC: Same as for all my “kids.” I want to it grow up, do well and have a long, long shelf life. Thanks again for the interview.
BCR: My pleasure, and thank you. We’ll look forward to seeing you on July 12th, and to seeing the book on shelves for a long, long time.
Martin Clark retired after 27 years as circuit court judge in Patrick County. His novels have appeared on several best-seller lists and have been chosen as a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Book World Best Book of the Year, a Bookmarks Magazine Best Book of the Year, a Boston Globe Best Book of the Year, a Book of the Month Club selection, a finalist for the Stephen Crane Award for First Fiction, and the winner of the Library of Virginia’s People’s Choice Award in 2009 and 2016. He received the Patrick County Outstanding Community Service Award in 2016 and the Virginia State Bar’s Harry L. Carrico Professionalism Award in 2018. Martin’s wife, Deana, is a photographer, and they live on a farm with dogs, cats, chickens, guinea fowl, and three donkeys.
★ Preorder your copy from Book No Further and get a 20% discount online or in the store with code AEP190712. The book will be released on July 9.
★ Catch Martin Clark’s book signing at Book No Further at 7 PM on Wednesday, July 12
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