- - Tuesday, July 23, 2019


In “The Substitution Order” Martin Clark — often acclaimed as the country’s best writer of legal thrillers — tells the tale of Kevin Moore, a successful criminal attorney who trips one legal no-no switch after another.  

Prison is always a threat, and legal sanctions a certainty. So how did Kevin get into the legal minefield at the center of this novel and is there a way out for him? 

The first question is easily answered. Kevin tried cocaine and this precipitated a three-month bender of drugs and alcohol with a side-step into adultery that destroyed his marriage and led to the loss of his legal license.

But by the time the reader meets him, Kevin is a reformed character. He’s on probation but has been sober and drug-free for more than 300 days. He’s also been gainfully employed running SUBstitution, a small-town Virginia knock-off of a national chain of sandwich shops. In addition, he is taking care of his cousin’s farm in return for accommodation. 

Living on a beautiful farm, having some lawyer friends and holding down a job with an amiable young workmate who is a computer whizz are on the plus side of Kevin’s balance sheet. On the debit side is his impending divorce from the wife he loves and the looming task of getting reinstated to the Virginia bar.

It doesn’t stack up too badly until a white-haired stranger arrives in the sandwich shop to remind Kevin of his former client Melanie Culp. She’d asked him to review a contract for an option to buy acreage for $950,000. According to the stranger, Kevin was also instructed to execute the option if the contract was in order. Now he claims someone else bought the land and quickly resold it for $5 million, so Melanie is about to sue Kevin for his negligence and her loss. 

There’s a solution though: Kevin has $5 million of legal insurance that he can claim. Kevin refuses because Melanie never instructed him to buy the land; only to check the contract. 

His refusal to engage in an insurance scam drops him into a world of pain involving set-ups, threats, forgeries and tangles with the unforgiving legal system. “Once you make a single mistake everything else you do is viewed through a warped lens and any new narrative begins with the assumption that you are simply up to more of the same old – Guilty just like last time,” notes Kevin’s lawyer.

What is Kevin to do? He understands the law, has plenty of ideas, is active on his own behalf. Plus those legal friends are a help. But one legal trap tips him into another. 

Author Martin Clark is a former circuit court judge in Virginia, so he is skilled at tossing legal bombs into Kevin’s lap. This is at first intriguing, and for lawyers and legal mavens may remain entrancing until the end of the tale. Others, however, may find descriptions of technical ins and outs a bit incomprehensible and eventually tedious. 

Some readers may also find Kevin’s back story less than convincing. He is presented as a talented, experienced and well-respected lawyer, who drank very little but was suddenly tipped into alcoholism by cocaine. This is no doubt possible. But it’s a lot less likely that after three months he was able to kick these new-found habits, emerging from his extraordinary lapses with complete conviction that he has only himself to blame, and that the wife who is divorcing him after 18 happily married years is entirely right to do so. One would think a canny criminal lawyer would do better on his own behalf than this, especially as Kevin — who narrates this story — always stresses how much he loves being a lawyer.

Indeed, Kevin is a character of many parts. In the sandwich shop he is competent, accepting his work as a sort of penance while looking forward to the forgiveness of the Virginia bar and his eventual return to it. He’s sympathetic to his co-worker, a bright guy struggling to earn the wherewithal to pay for university. He rescues a pup from the dumpster and gives him a good home and training. He joshes with folks. So it’s easy to empathize with Kevin, and especially to root for him when the barbed wire of the law grips him ever more tightly. 

This characterization of Kevin captures interest though it might not prepare the reader for the outcome of his story. Looking back, though, there are clues to be found in this tightly plotted tale. One of its charms is that Martin Clark writes crisply about encounters among people, and sharply of the shortcomings of the legal and health care systems. There’s plenty here to engage. 

• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

• • •

By Martin Clark
Alfred A. Knopf, $27.95, 241 pages

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