Patrick County author Martin Clark with his dog, Zelda, and cats Ace and Maggie. Photo courtesy of DHC Photography.

Andy Hughes has had it with being a public defender.

For nearly 20 years, he’s stood up in the Patrick County Courthouse to represent what he calls “The Reliables” — the repeat offenders whose hard-luck stories read like screenplays of courtroom dramas that detail every drunk in public, indecent exposure and assault and battery charge in “Groundhog Day”-like fashion. Hughes has fought the good fight for these clients almost daily, with little gratitude from the Reliables and little pay from the state. He’s done with this job.

His boss in the public defender office, Vikram Kapil, wants him to wrap up one more case before he goes, though. Hughes has to finalize the plea deal for Damian Bullins, a local sociopath who admitted that he slit the throat of a woman who was married to one of the county’s most prominent businessmen. The case is open and shut.

But as often happens in Hughes’ life, simple things get complicated really quickly. A clerical error threatens the plea deal and ultimately casts doubt on his client’s guilt. A hotshot prosecutor is brought in from another county, right in the middle of his own state senate race. The national spotlight turns to the little mountain town of Stuart to cover the grisly murder case.

Image courtesy of Rare Bird Books.

And even though some of the characters are real and Stuart itself is a real place, the rest of the story is all from the imagination of Martin Clark, the retired Patrick County judge whose sixth novel, “The Plinko Bounce” (Rare Bird Books), comes out Tuesday. His latest legal potboiler tells the story of a burned-out public defender who questions his own belief in justice as he represents a man who confessed to a heinous murder but who might deservedly go free.

Like most of his other novels, starting with his 2000 debut, “The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living” (Knopf), Clark’s new book covers familiar ground, literally: The story unfolds across the foothills of Patrick County, where Clark has lived just about his entire life, and through the courtrooms and law offices in places such as Stuart and Martinsville, where he worked and where the seeds of many fictional legal dramas were planted.

Even though many of his stories detour through big cities and sometimes hit the road out West, Patrick County is home turf for his characters and their often outrageous tales.

“Places are characters in my books,” Clark, 64, said in a telephone interview last week. “You need to write about what you know. You’ve got to get all the small details right in a setting so that it rings true with people in the region who read it.”

Many readers will recognize familiar names and places in “The Plinko Bounce.” Kapil really heads the public defender office in Halifax County (“He’s a great lawyer,” Clark said), and Ararat and Mount Airy are almost within hollerin’ distance from each other along the Virginia-North Carolina line.

Before retiring in 2019 after 27 years on the bench, Clark pulled double-duty as a circuit court judge and author, and he filled his novels with precise legal knowledge and plot twists.

“I always told people I’d rather be a writer than a judge,” Clark said.

Writing is mostly a full-time occupation these days, although he and his wife, Deana, stay busy on their farm with multiple dogs, cats, chickens and three donkeys.

He still finds inspiration from the region where he lives and from the legal system he watched from a front-row seat.

Courtroom stories are “the best kind of drama,” Clark said. “It’s real-life drama. It’s about loss of freedom, loss of life, loss of money. … It’s bad reality TV. It’s like watching ‘American Idol’ without the occasional good song.”

Clark maintains that his stories are complete fiction, except that they flowered from kernels of facts he might have observed in cases. He sprinkles his novels with the names of friends, usually in positive contexts. One time, an unnamed friend balked at being named as the bad guy in one of Clark’s novels.

“I told one dear friend that I wanted him to be a villain, and he said he didn’t want to be,” Clark said. “He appeared in a later book as a corporation. I used his initials to be the acronym for a corporation.”

(Which sounds like it could be as bad as being a villain, but that’s another story.)

From the beginning of his publishing career, Clark has earned praise for fast-moving stories. His publicists have gotten much mileage out of an early review from The New York Times, which called Clark “not only the thinking man’s John Grisham but, maybe better, the drinking man’s John Grisham.” That’s the kind of praise that not even one of the crooks in Clark’s novels could buy.

Martin Clark’s books

“The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living” (Knopf, 2000)

“Plain Heathen Mischief” (Knopf, 2004)

“The Legal Limit” (Knopf, 2008)

“The Jezebel Remedy” (Knopf, 2015)

“The Substitution Order” (Knopf, 2019)

“The Plinko Bounce” (Rare Bird Books, 2023)

The new novel’s title comes from the game (popularized on “The Price is Right”) in which a flat disc slides down a board, bouncing and pinballing off pegs as it heads to the bottom, where it lands in one of several slots that could contain fabulous prizes or nothing at all. For public defender Hughes, the quest for justice has become like that erratic Plinko disc.

The story takes place in a masked-up 2020 as people, and the court system, try to cope with the early days of the pandemic. Although COVID is not a major factor in the story’s plot, the timing and setting establish a jittery, anxious tone to the environment.

“The best I can tell, nobody is using the pandemic as a backdrop” for stories, Clark said. “The book isn’t about that, but when you couple the pandemic with the opioid crisis and poverty [in Patrick County], we got a double and triple whammy. And add the context that Patrick County doesn’t have a hospital right now, and we have such limited medical access, all that just compounds the problems.”

Fellow authors and book publications have already raved about “The Plinko Bounce.” Roanoke best-selling author Beth Macy (“Dopesick”) called it Clark’s “tour de force.” Former Southwest Virginian Adriana Trigiani (“Big Stone Gap”) described Clark as “a master craftsman who exalts the genre of legal thriller to heavenly heights. Ain’t nobody following him that will ever do better.”

Matthew Quick, whose bestseller “The Silver Linings Playbook” was the basis for the 2012 movie starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper, said Clark’s new novel contains “all the legal tomfoolery of ‘Better Call Saul’ and the dutiful heart of ‘Longmire.’”

Macy said that Clark’s writing is a boon for Southwest and Southside Virginia because it depicts the people with an honesty, integrity and respect that often is lacking in coverage the region gets from national media. 

“Martin Clark elevates rural Virginia, and he does it in a wily, witty way that keeps us on the edge of our seats and makes us proud to be from the same place as him,” Macy said.

Clark doesn’t care much for the phrase “legal thriller” to describe his stories, he said. To him, “thriller” implies chase scenes, close calls, violence and fast-moving three-page chapters. Clark’s books are almost more character-based than plot-based, as unfortunate souls wriggle in and out of tight spots, using cunning and brainpower. That’s perhaps where the “thinking man’s John Grisham” description comes from.

“My books are like a riff of music, where you’ll get a tiny poetry riff every now and then,” said Clark, himself a big music fan, especially of roots-based artists who perform at festivals such as Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots, which he attended last weekend.

The trick, he said, is to make the plots seem like they could happen in the real world, in a place like Stuart, Virginia. Andy Hughes, the public-defending protagonist in “The Plinko Bounce,” is a realistic character: underpaid, fed up and burned out. His client is equally realistic: thankless, paranoid and a self-identified victim of a corrupt justice system.

Even though his stories deal with nuances and vagaries of the American legal system, and even though the plot of “The Plinko Bounce” hinges on a courthouse mistake, Clark said that he never wavered in his trust in the courts during his time as a lawyer and as a judge. He said that only twice in three decades did he observe cases where “the outcome didn’t track with the truth,” he said.

“There’s this feeling out there that the system is fixed on some level but the truth is, it is not,” he said. “I saw hard-working people in criminal law all day long. Every judge I ever met was honest. There’s no bribery, no boondoggle behind the scenes.”

He pointed out that the most controversial verdicts these days are usually handed down by juries — not by paid-off judges or crooked lawyers — in which a dozen local members of a community have decided what is just.

“When I was a judge, people would come up to me on the street and condemn a decision, and I would ask them, ‘Did you hear the case?’” he said. “Most verdicts that are condemned are jury verdicts. The people in your community are following the law. Basically, when somebody complains about a verdict they’re saying, ‘My friends and neighbors in the community got it wrong,’ which is not the case.”

Clark believes strongly in his own community, so much so that he will hold his book-launch event at the Patrick County branch of the Blue Ridge Public Library on Tuesday from 3:30 until 8 p.m. During the event, Clark will award a $10,000 scholarship to a Patrick County High School student in memory of his former English teacher, the late Ann Belcher.

“This county has always supported me,” said Clark, whose mother was a second-grade teacher for many years. The scholarship is a way to say thank you from him and his wife, he said.

Books will be on sale during Tuesday’s event, said branch manager Garry Clifton, who added that Clark is so popular in Stuart that folks can expect long waits to meet their hometown hero.

“Last time he did a signing at the library, we sold over 500 books and people were lined up from 3 o’clock till 8,” Clifton said. “It was actually 8:30 when we got out last time. He’s a native son, a humble guy and a really interesting person.”

Clark will also hold an event at independent bookstore Book No Further in Roanoke at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. People must purchase a book from the store to attend the event. More information can be found at

Even with all the critical hoopla, endorsements from big-time authors, appearances on bestseller lists and comparisons to John Grisham, Clark said he just wants readers to enjoy themselves when they read his books.

“I write books that are fun,” Clark said. “If folks are going to spend $28 on a book, it needs to be entertaining, tell a good story and provide a good time and an ending they didn’t see coming.”

Ralph Berrier Jr. is a writer who lives in Roanoke. Contact him at