Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Lawyers in Love

With The Jezebel Remedy, Martin Clark delivers another taut, comic thriller

Martin Clark’s lively and original take on the legal thriller led The New York Times Magazine to call him “the thinking man’s John Grisham,” but Clark’s quirky characters, snappy dialogue, and unpredictable but totally plausible plotting bear greater resemblance to the work of Carl Hiaasen than to the generally more serious Grisham. Indeed, according to Kirkus, “Clark seems to be doing for contemporary Virginia’s strip-mall suburbs what Hiaasen has done for South Florida’s urban playgrounds and remote swamps: bringing out its dark comedy while identifying its criminal tendencies.”

A circuit-court judge in southwestern Virginia, Clark is an expert both on the law and on the peculiarities of his fictional settings. In his newest novel, The Jezebel Remedy, Clark introduces Joe and Lisa Stone, talented small-town Virginia lawyers who are partners in business and in life. Joe is a charming Southern barrister who keeps a working farm and wears cowboy boots to work; Lisa is whip-smart, beautiful, and a bit restless. When local eccentric and self-styled inventor Lettie VanSandt—Joe’s first client, and Lisa’s chief nemesis—turns up dead in an apparent meth-lab explosion at her home, Joe can’t let it lie. His investigations eventually reveal Lettie’s involvement with Benecorp, a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical company, and lead the Stones down a wild path that pits them against a Big Pharma billionaire whose ruthlessness threatens to destroy their careers and their marriage.

The Stones are clearly an alpha couple in rural southwestern Virginia. Joe is a bit of an oddball with a few quirks that Lisa has grown to find tiresome—he rides a scooter to work; he named his dog Brownie and likes to quote George W. Bush’s famous “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” gaffe from the Katrina disaster too often for Lisa’s taste—but he wrangles horses and can still bench three hundred pounds. A bit of a blue-blood and top of her class at UVA Law, Lisa turns heads everywhere she goes, tempting rival attorneys with her beauty before thrashing them with her legal acumen. Lisa had more impressive options, but her love for Joe led her to join him in Martinsville, where they have built a small but respected practice dealing with a wide range of clients, including Lettie VanSandt.

Lettie is a quintessentially eccentric small-town institution, with plenty of enemies and nary a friend save Joe Stone. “Fortyish and spectacularly tattooed, ‘Petty Lettie’ VanSandt hadn’t quit at simply inking her pale skin and matchstick limbs; she’d also gussied herself up with three nose rings and a gigantic gold front tooth just in case the needle painting needed accessorizing or wasn’t overwrought and sideshow enough,” writes Clark. “As a final baroque flourish, she’d recently added a tongue piercing, a tiny silver barbell she could rattlesnake out from behind the fake tooth. Lettie claimed she’d done the job herself, with an ice cube and free-clinic hydrocodone tablets to numb the meat.”

When Lettie turns up dead, Joe immediately smells foul play. Lettie is nuts, he reasons, but meth is not among her vices. Then an ex-employee of Benecorp appears at Joe’s office, revealing that Lettie had developed the formula for a “wound salve” that he believes the company was willing to kill for. Joe becomes obsessed both with uncovering the truth about what happened to Lettie and with securing the full value of her miracle salve—a percentage of which is due to him, according to Lettie’s last will and testament. But major pharmaceutical companies don’t give up easily, and before long Joe and Lisa find themselves going toe-to-toe with Seth Garrison, the billionaire behind Benecorp who makes it clear he’ll go to any lengths not just to control Lettie’s formula, but to crush anyone foolish enough to stand up against him.

Aside from the wacky plot twists and snappy dialogue, The Jezebel Remedy stands apart from others of its ilk by the manner in which Clark fuses the concerns of the thriller with those of the domestic novel. Joe and Lisa Stone are a match of opposites—a “leather and lace” duo who have survived on the strength of their love and mutual admiration. But all marriages are subject to strain, and Lisa is frustrated by the small-town life she chose when she married Joe. “Lately she’d felt a bit stuck, preoccupied with the flat patches in her life, mulling and noodling, flummoxed by how she seemed to have wandered across an insidious boundary and been shanghaied into a dull land of earth tones,” Clark writes. “She worried that her entire world, from alpha to omega, was nothing more than a stupefying loop, a big, whopping white-bread bonanza, comfort and familiarity their own worst enemies.” As for Joe, he’s basically a dutiful husband, but his comfort with routine and his inattentiveness to his wife make it easy to understand Lisa’s disenchantment.

At times, The Jezebel Remedy is perhaps a bit too accurate in its rendering of corporate legal intrigue, but Clark’s trust in his readers’ intelligence is much more an asset than a liability. And while the story is comic in nature, it touches on archetypal themes that still resonate: the David-and-Goliath stand-off between mom-and-pop country lawyers and Big Pharma; the ways in which seemingly small errors in judgment come back to haunt us; the corrupting influence of greed, both in the powerful and in someone like Lettie VanSandt, a redneck loser who never quit trying. Best of all, The Jezebel Remedy gives readers not one but two intrepid lawyers to pull for, sending them on an unpredictable and gratifying ride, one which will leave readers hoping they haven’t seen the last of the Stones.