Kevin Moore had been a star attorney, beloved by his clients as well as fellow lawyers, judges, probation officers and other esteemed members of the legal establishment. But at the beginning of Martin Clark’s crackling screwball legal con artist comedy “The Substitution Order” (Knopf), his career has self-destructed after a three-month cocaine binge concluded with him startled awake in a stripper’s bed as drug cops bust in to raid the place.

Now Moore is on probation, he can’t practice law, his wife is divorcing him, and his job is making sandwiches at a sub shop. As he sees it, he’s doing his penance, demonstrating that he’s cleaned up and committed to self-improvement.

That’s until a con man saunters in, calling himself Caleb Opportunity, and threatens Moore with a malpractice suit for failing to close a real estate deal for a client when he was zonked on cocaine. The accusation is bogus, Martin insists, and he tells the guy off. Mr. Opportunity says if Moore just plays along, they’ll pay him $250,000 and use their political pull to get Moore’s law license restored. Moore tells him off again. “The train, Kevin, is coming,” Mr. Opportunity warns. “You want to write on it or you want it to run over you?”

Martin Clark. (DHC Photography)
Martin Clark. (DHC Photography)

The scam registers as so far fetched that it’s hard to take seriously—whether you’re Moore or the reader. But then a new probation officer shows up. Even though Moore has been clean from drugs for a year, the officer plants drugs and a gun in Moore’s car and rigs a drug test so that Moore fails. Now even his friends have trouble trusting the word of this recovering attorney against the probation officer’s frame job.

The story turns into one of those cunningly knotty confidence games, full of twists and trap doors, all recounted with humor and aplomb. It’s like a Virginia legal world version of one of Carl Hiaasen’s Florida crime shenanigans. Moore and his friends are delightful company, deliciously wicked with the law, but down to earth, flirty, good humored, forgiving, good hearted. In other words, for all the author’s narrative exaggerations, they feel like three-dimensional portrayals of grownups. (This is an improvement over Martin’s previous novels in which characters have often been too movie star pretty. And skip his first novel “The Many Aspects of Mobil Home Living,” which is tainted by violent misogyny.)

Moore keeps thinking he can outwit the con artists, only to—again!—unhappily discover that he’s not hit rock bottom, yet.

"The Substitution Order" by Martin Clark. (Knopf)
“The Substitution Order” by Martin Clark. (Knopf)

There are various baddies involved in the con, but the book’s major villains are crooked systems—an insurance industry designed to rake in fortunes by avoiding paying for medical care—a legal system that crushes little folks with righteous fervor because society has more faith in familiar stories and stereotypes than in the complicated facts. That the author of these sentiments is a retired Virginia circuit court judge does not inspire optimism for our society.

I won’t reveal the plot turns, but when a friend tracks down Moore to explain how it all turns out, the friend is grinning and hollering, “You sun of a gun.” It’s hard not to smile and laugh out loud too. It’s the sort of delightful tall tale that leaves you itching to read more from Martin Clark.

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Categories: Books