Martin Clark

"Plain Heathen Mischief"

(reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 15, 2004)

"I'll start by sayin' there are no bigger thieves in the world than insurance companies that earn a livin' by systematically denying claims and nickel-and-dimin' folks to death. And if they finally do pay you, it's always horribly late since they want to use your money for months and months before forking it over…At any rate, a lot of my work involves keepin' insurance companies honest, makin' sure they don't get too rich from the sweat of the ordinary people they're trying to screw."

With these words Edmund Brooks explains his business to Rev. Joel King, former pastor of Roanoke First Baptist Church, newly released from jail after serving a six month term for "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." Edmund, a parishioner originally from Las Vegas, has picked up Joel upon his release from jail and offered to drive to Montana, where Joel's sister is awaiting him, a trip which might have been fatal if Edmund's car crash along the way had not been so well-executed. Claiming he was forced off the road by another car, Edmund is soon poised to collect on his "misfortune," one more scam among many in his career, and he is anxious to persuade Joel to help him with a few more "foolproof" jobs.

Joel is at a personal crossroads. A good but exceedingly naïve man, he is a devout Baptist who has dedicated his life to serving his parish—until Christy Darden, a 17-year-old temptress, worked her wiles on him during a counseling session and he "sinned," offering no defense when she claimed rape, and even pleading guilty when he was charged. But there is a gap between what Christy says happened, and what Joel knows happened, and he is mystified by how she acquired the DNA evidence which led to his conviction and six month sentence. He holds no grudge against Christy, however, because he believes he is guilty: "There's no such creature as a minor sin," he declares. "There's the straight, correct, narrow route, and the rest is just plain heathen mischief."

Now, having served his sentence, he learns that his wife has filed for divorce and that Christy has filed a damage suit against him and Roanoke Baptist Church for $5 million. Knowing that the church is insured for only $4 million, Joel is at a loss as to how to help the good people he has disappointed, and when Edmund suggests a lawyer he knows in Las Vegas, who will help him find representation in Virginia, Joel, penniless and grateful, turns to Sa'ad X. Sa'ad for relief from his problems.

It will come as no surprise to the reader that Edmund and Sa'ad X. Sa'ad are partners in a variety of insurance scams, and that Joel is the ready-made, carefully selected dupe who, in his desperation to "make things right" for the people he loves gets sucked into a wild scam which grows exponentially. As Joel finds himself becoming more and more caught up in its complexities, which involve "borrowed jewelry," he finds himself questioning not his faith, which never waivers, but his interpretation of right and wrong and his understanding of his mission in life. "The trick…was how to differentiate between heaven-sent persuasion and his own wish list, how to separate holy marching orders from the vanities and narcissistic wants that cluttered his brain. The voices in his thoughts always sounded identical, and the ideas that wandered through his mind didn't carry labels or certificates of authenticity; the flashy, peacock counterfeits were just as impressive—at first blush—as the pedigreed article." As he strives to accomplish long-term right by taking expedient measures which he knows are wrong, he comes to new understandings of the complexity of real life and the difficulty of identifying a heavenly voice in the cacophony which surrounds him.

Joel King's growing understanding of good and evil, however, is a only a part of this hilariously funny and delightfully intricate tale which features crosses and double-crosses, misread motives, scammers getting scammed, and frauds falling for frauds perpetrated by other frauds. The glitz and glamour of Edmund and Sa'ad's life in Las Vegas contrast with Joel's simpler life in Montana, the blackjack tables and shark tank in the lobby of the Mirage Hotel with the formica tables at the Station restaurant, where Joel works, and with the trout streams to which he guides fishermen. The characters, while not fully developed, are vividly portrayed, representing the full spectrum of humanity--the trusting and the cynical, the charitable and the grasping, and the vulgar and the principled. And as the story becomes more and more complex, with insurance investigators, lawyers, local police, probation officers, and even the FBI all arrayed against Edmund, Joel, and Sa'ad X. Sa'ad (who have all sorts of betrayals planned for each other), the reader is thoroughly engaged, totally involved in the rapidly developing action, and constantly surprised by the twists and turns of the plot.

Filled with humor, this well developed, and beautifully written novel touches on big themes and balances farce-like action with touching scenes, as Joel, ill-equipped for the real world in which he finds himself, deals with profound moral challenges and tries to act in the best interests of his sister, young nephew, and the people he has wronged. "A grown man's coming-of-age story," Plain Heathen Mischief is filled with the irony of a good man and "moral leader" whose absolute interpretation of what is right and good leads him to jail at the beginning of the novel and whose subsequent growth and sense of redemption occur through his criminal behavior. Fun, focused, and captivating, this is one of the most enjoyable novels I have read all year.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Plain Heathen Mischief at The Borzoi Reader

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About the Author:

Martin ClarkMartin Clark s a Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Davidson College and a 1984 graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. In 1992 he was appointed as a juvenile and domestic relations district court judge for the Twenty-first Judicial Circuit and currently serves as a circuit court judge for the Virginia counties of Patrick and Henry and the city of Martinsville, Virginia, a job he has held since 1995.

His first novel, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, was a New York Times Notable Book, a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, a finalist for the Stephen Crane First Fiction Award, and appeared on several bestseller lists. Martin's second novel, Plain Heathen Mischief, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, was chosen as a selection of the Quality Paperback Book Club and, prior to release, appeared on both Amazon's and Barnes and Noble's Top 100. Mischief was nominated for several 2004 literary awards.

He lives in Stuart, Virginia with his wife Deana. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014