“The Plinko Bounce” by Martin Clark

Author Martin Clark, a retired Virginia Circuit Court judge, writes an outstanding classic legal thriller with The Plinko Bounce (Rare Bird Books 2023). Like most classic legal thrillers, the hero is a lawyer and the odds are stacked against him and his client in a murder case. There is also a tense trial, and post-trial, a twist adds that extra surprise kick at the end. All of which makes The Plinko Bounce an eminently readable and immensely satisfying novel. The high quality of the writing, the careful plotting, the conflicted main lawyer’s character, and the insider’s knowledge of the legal world carry this one above and beyond a formulaic legal thriller.

The name itself, Plinko Bounce, is from a game show involving a bottle drop, which at least one character in the book claims is a rigged stunt. That, of course, suggests some legal proceedings might be rigged too. Yet the no-nonsense trial judge in this story, Christina Leventis, is determined that everyone who comes before her will play by the rules. But life and unforeseen circumstances might derail her firm control—and her strict adherence to the letter of the law might backfire.

The main protagonist is dedicated attorney and genuine nice-guy Andy Hughes. After seventeen years as a public defender in the Commonwealth of Virginia, Andy has had enough. When he tells his superior at the public defender office he is quitting, the boss tries to entice him to stay. Andy remains committed to resigning, but he agrees to take on one last big case. And therein lies Andy’s mistake.

The one last big case is defending repeat offender Damian Bullins, a local man who was raised in poverty by an alcoholic aunt. Andy has defended Damian before and knows him and his record well. That personal knowledge does not stop Andy from agreeing to take the case out of loyalty to the public defender office and his boss. To complicate things further, Damian has already signed a confession. He admitted he killed the respected wife of a rich man after she refused to give him money for drugs. Or, as Andy’s boss comments: “And what catnip for the press, huh? The African American wife of a devout, high profile Mormon multimillionaire is murdered in her own home. Too many unicorns in that tale to count.”

Damian might be violent, yet he is also smart—intelligent enough to have once won a scholarship to a good college, though he was quickly expelled after being convicted of a gun charge, as well as struggling with drug and alcohol issues. Andy describes Damian this way: “He has a vicious temper, a fierce self-destructive bent, and a meth-and-pill monkey the size of King Kong. …A loser, probably a clinical sociopath, with a record and a history that make murder seem like the next logical progression on his resume.”

Except for the confession, prosecutors will be in trouble. There is no motive, no direct evidence, no witnesses, and a purely circumstantial case. And it isn’t long until Andy spots the problem with the confession. Acting upon what laypersons would call “a technicality” but actually involves a constitutional guarantee, Andy attacks the confession in a hearing before Judge Leventis. Upon learning the signed confession is constitutionally defective, Damian radically changes his story, denies his culpability and explains away the confession by pointing a finger of guilt elsewhere. Damian’s new tale is convoluted, but his explanation is not out of the realm of possibility. Suddenly what looked like an easy conviction for the prosecutor is spun around and Andy has a defendable case. The cost to Andy and his family remains to be seen, however.

Andy’s personal life is complicated ten-fold by his pre-adolescent son, their newly rescued dog, Andy’s budding romance, and the complicated tensions involving the mother of his son. All of this would almost be sufficient to have made this into a fine domestic drama absence the murder trial. The mother of his son and Andy share custody, are friendly, and are mutually respectful of each other. However, when her marriage erupts, there’s spill-over into Andy’s life. These repercussions strain Andy’s new relationship with a fellow public defender, Kellie.

Like many legal thrillers, this is essentially a tale of evil vs. good, complicated by Andy’s ethical duty to defend to the best of his ability a man he despises for good reason. Great tension and conflict result when a good man must defend an evil man in a court of law. This theme has been explored before in legal thrillers (Lincoln Lawyer springs to mind). Still, Martin Clark does a fine job of presenting the ethical quandaries with his insider’s knowledge of criminal law and his deft hand at weaving these ethical dilemmas into the actual plot. Clark also tests the limits of the so-called criminal justice system even as he tests the limits of his main character, Andy.

While Clark follows the standard legal thriller format, this is not a negative. Genre formulas exist for a purpose—mainly because readers want them. After all most of the great legal thriller writers—John Grisham, Scott Turow, Robert Bailey to name a few—also tend to basically follow this formula. Even Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird followed that pattern, albeit with a goodly number of side-trip into the personal lives of the characters. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus must defend a man against great odds and after the trial there is the extra twist at the end, and that is, ultimately, the standard legal thriller format. Rather than deviate broadly from such a format, the author’s trick must be to follow it without being plodding, uninspired, or obvious. A lawyer writing a legal thriller does not want to pen something which reads like a paint-by-numbers final product. Rather, the lawyer/author needs to bring something fresh to the project. This Clark does in The Plinko Bounce, with his seemingly unsolvable ethical dilemmas and his convincing pre-and-post trial maneuvers, and finally with Andy Hughes, a character sure to linger in readers’ minds long after the last page.

Bottom line: Clark knows how to write a riveting, page-turning legal thriller with a surprise or two for his readers. He’s done it before and hopefully will continue to do so. The New York Times claims that “Clark is not only the thinking man’s John Grisham but, maybe better, the drinking man’s John Grisham.” Entertainment Weekly opines he is “Hands down, our finest legal-thriller writer.”

Martin Clark

Clark is a retired circuit court judge from Patrick County, Virginia, the setting of The Plinko Bounce. He is graduate of Davidson College and attended law school at the University of Virginia. In 1992, when he was appointed to the bench, he became one of the youngest judges in Virginia history. He is the author of several legal thrillers, and his novels have appeared on many best seller lists. Visit him at www.martinclark.com.



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