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Plain Heathen Mischief by Martin Clark
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Plain Heathen Mischief

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Plain Heathen Mischief by Martin Clark
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Jun 14, 2005 | ISBN 9781400034116

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  • Jun 14, 2005 | ISBN 9781400034116

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  • Dec 18, 2007 | ISBN 9780307427274

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"Sweet and wicked. . . . A pumped-up joyride across the rocky terrain of modern ethics and faith." —Entertainment Weekly

"Outlandishly believable. . . . The Gospel may hit a mainstream high with Plain Heathen Mischief. . . . Clark deftly handles all of the details of the criminal justice system, the psychology of its criminals and the difficulties of re-entering society. . . . To the end, Plain Heathen Mischief remains an unpredictably good ride." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Outstanding. . . . Delightfully deceitful characters and a perfectly imperfect zinger ending. . . . One of the season’s most entertaining yarns." —Miami Herald

"Juicy characters and memorable dialogue are what make this book as pleasurable to inhale as a Krispy Kreme doughnut. . . . Clark’s tracing of King’s moral arc, from a flawed man of the cloth to a hardened pragmatist, is a thing of beauty. " —Newsday

"Peopled with perfectly drawn characters and eccentrics, a human panoply that shuttles between the farcical and the heartfelt, all of them breathed full of vivid life by Clark’s astonishing literary skill. Clark [is] a master of dialogue and a brilliant scenepainter." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"A top-notch story from a truly original writer that defies the reader not to rip through every page with sheer delight." –David Baldacci, author of Total Control

"As taut with a twisting plot line as a classic country house whodunit, Plain Heathen Mischief is hilarious and incisive yet expansive in its examination of character and its generosity toward those who deserve it. A terrifically entertaining and thoughtful novel . . . filled with superbly sketched characters." —Memphis Commercial Appeal

"Appealing. . . . Even better than his first novel. . . . Clark [is] an author many of us will look to again, if only to see what he could possibly dream up next." —Richmond Times-Dispatch
"A delightfully surprising book. Its tricky plot and morally ambiguous characters recall Elmore Leonard, its deadpan humor and dead-on details evoke the Coen brothers’ films, and its coupling of over-the-top behavior with unflinching moral concern recalls . . . masters such as Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews." —St. Petersburg Times

"Martin Clark is a skillful storyteller whose style recalls Thomas McGuane’s. . . . Plain Heathen Mischief is an American fable that combines the archetypal road story with one man’s quest for redemption." —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review  

"Only Martin Clark could have written this swirling cocktail of church, sin, and caper, and he pulls it off with great elegance. Plain Heathen Mischief is funny and fascinating, but it is also a brave and spirited examination of faith, and of the fraud we perpetuate not just in the world, but in ourselves." –Haven Kimmel, author of A Girl Named Zippy

“[A] suspenseful, charming read that is one part John Grisham and two parts Tom Robbins.” —Playboy

"Clark effectively keeps us in suspense . . . there are scams within scams [and] entertaining twists of the plot hold plenty of surprises.” –The Plain Dealer

“Clark’s multi-layered, finely named comic novel is both thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. Clark is a master of character development. Even his minor characters are carefully drawn and convincing, and the dialogue sizzles like July Fourth sparklers. . . . A wise and thoroughly enjoyable tale." —Flint Journal Review
"A well-imagined cast of characters and resonant settings." —Fort Worth Star-Telegram
"Clark takes the gritty stuff of real life and transforms it into some of the richest, funniest and most affecting fiction being written today. This book offers the best of both fictional worlds: It’s an entertaining, easily readable story that leaves you with a lot to think about, once you’ve stopped laughing." —Winston-Salem Journal

“Laugh out loud funny. . . . I don’t know if it’s from being a judge and hearing case after case that Clark gets his wild plots from, but if so, I hope he sits on that bench for many years to come.” –Dan Wickett, director of the Emerging Writers Network

"A well-paced, entertaining legal thriller . . . a modern-day morality play." —The Memphis Flyer

"Funny and hopeful and endearing. . . . A brilliantly realized caper novel . . . full of finely honed characters and crisp dialogue. . . . It is never short on surprises, twists and turns, all of which are well thought out and absolutely believable." —The Anniston Star

"Quirky and idiosyncratic . . . [a] laugh-out-loud, road-to-ruin saga." —Ft. Myers News-Press

"Both funny and deeply poignant, this story of a fallen minister displays Clark’s keen eye for the deftly rendered detail, as well as his compassionate understanding of the tremors that dwell in the soul and the heart." –Elizabeth Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle

"Satisfying. . . . Clark bring[s] truth and fact to the surface in glittering flashes." —Greensboro News & Record

"From page one to the final phrase . . . Mischief is a roller-coaster ride of chicanery, double-crossing liars, bizarre lawsuits, duping, depositions and downright fun. The jury did not have to deliberate long on this verdict: Plain Heathen Mischief is to be enjoyed." –Roanoke Times

“A delight from start to finish . . . one of the year’s most entertaining surprises.” —Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

“Big, boisterous and hugely enjoyable . . . with its impressive sweep and density, Clark’s work triumphantly clears the second-novel hurdle. —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Plain Heathen Mischief is a breezy read with plenty of bite. . . . It will provide a welcome respite from modern-day cynicism. —Dallas Morning News

“Despite its narrative depth, this book zips by. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal

“A wicked, humorous yarn.” —Esquire

Author Q&A

Q:So how did writing your second novel differ from the first? Did you feel that good old second book pressure?
A:I’d have to say it was a very different experience for a number of reasons. I had about two decades to write The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living, and I wrote this new book in roughly three and a half years, slow by industry standards but pretty good for a dilettante with a day job. Also there’s the fact that I’ve actually been through the entire publishing process. The first time around, I had no idea what to expect and was just happy to see my book in print and on the shelf at the Patrick County Library. Now, knowing what’s coming, I can’t help but hold my breath and cross my fingers and worry about this and that–it’s a different feeling in many respects. Finally, most folks don’t like to admit it, but I read every review of Many Aspects, good, bad and in-between. I’m fortunate most were charitable, but even the harsh ones usually contained something worthwhile, and a couple pointed out shortcomings that, in retrospect, seem obvious and easily correctable. This whole notion that some especially bright readers are going to be sifting through your pages keeps you on your toes while you’re writing and reminds you that it’s probably not a good idea to get sloppy or cut corners. Last time, as far as I knew, my only audience was my former law
partner, a couple of old friends and the guy at the copy center.

Q:What was the genesis for Plain Heathen Mischief?
A:One of the big plot strands for Plain Heathen Mischief comes from an actual case I heard, a slick, clever flim-flam that caused two civil juries to deadlock before the plaintiff finally convinced a third jury he was entitled to a fat verdict and walked away with money he didn’t deserve. I’m not sure I should say more than that, and the lawyer in me makes me add a disclaimer here: This fellow won his case, and it is merely my opinion that he hoodwinked a jury. He was vindicated in court, and my take on the case could be totally wrong. Obviously, I just used the skeleton from this scam, the basic grift as I understood it, then translated it into a different, more elaborate context.

Q:Lawyer Sa’ad X Sa’ad, one of the shadiest cats in this novel, has a wall of gumball/candy machines in his Las Vegas office. He says, “The machines are my metaphor for the justice system.” How so?

A:The rest of the quote states, “if you have enough money to put in, sooner or later you’ll get out what you’re after.” Unfortunately, to some extent the metaphor holds true in the world of jurisprudence–cash makes a difference. It’s one of the smaller themes in the book, but in the long run, deep pockets will transcend everything else–race, gender, status or family connections. I’m not saying the justice system is corrupt per se, or that there aren’t a lot of excellent legal-aid lawyers and public defenders. (In fact, I’d feel comfortable with my local PD representing me.) When it’s allowed to do its job, the trial process is a
remarkable instrument. It’s simply that money can buy endless, frustrating delays, force settlements with under-funded adversaries, and discourage many people before they really ever get started. The bottom line is that financial wherewithal won’t always overcome the truth or guarantee a particular outcome, but a significant bankroll in the right–or perhaps “wrong” is a better choice–hands can sure do some damage.

Q:This novel follows Joel King, a preacher who has fallen from grace and gotten himself into some pretty bad legal and ethical trouble. What made you want to explore the trials of a man of the cloth?

A:I thought it would be interesting to place a decent, honest minister in difficult circumstances and see what happened, how far he would yield or bend or stray. Plain Heathen Mischief isn’t about a charlatan ripping off senior citizens or a cad out for an easy buck. Joel King is a devout man facing hard choices, and he’s tossed in with two con-men whose racket might not strike many people as altogether bad. It becomes very easy to compromise and rationalize when you’re broke or down on your luck, and that’s what bedevils Joel throughout the book. And if that theme isn’t to your liking, one of my friends mentioned that this novel is a primer on insurance fraud, the kind of thing my mother said shouldn’t see the light of day because it’ll just give people bad ideas and a blueprint as to how to break the law.

Q:Joel seems to be a bit of a modern day Job–tested by trial after trial. Did you have Job in mind at all while creating Joel?
A:Job certainly crossed my mind, yes. Joel, though, like most of us, doesn’t quite have Job’s faith, nor is Joel completely blameless for his circumstances as the Bible suggests Job was.

Q:Joel does some pretty heavy wrestling with faith, morality and what it takes to be a preacher. In the end he reflects, “I’m secure because I’ve walked through the valley, not because I’ve done an exegesis on the Book of Nahum or touched the parchment pages of some original manuscript…” He finds, as his sister Sophie says, “It’s a lot easier to preach it than to live it.” Why do you think it takes so many mistakes for Joel to arrive at that realization?
A:All the time, I see smart, well-intentioned people who stumble or slip or backslide or break a promise on the way to better things. It’s a fact of life, and I wanted this book to accurately track that kind of struggle. Awareness and equilibrium, in my opinion, don’t come in lightning bolts or garish neon epiphanies when you’re strung out in your basement searching for the little dab of cocaine you hid last week. It’s all more subtle,
incremental, gradual. As a judge I see relapses and inexplicable choices every day, even from the people who are truly trying. For someone like Joel, an out-of-work minister who isn’t particularly worldly, it takes a fair amount of trial and error and hot-stove touching before he finally gets his life in order.

Q:This is a novel about faith in the modern world. A world that has Joel feeling “flat weary of people taking shots at us for addressing tough issues and actually believing in something other than smart-mouth skepticism.” Do you think in this day and age, faith and skepticism can find some kind of harmony?
A:In the end, one will necessarily have to trump the other, and that tension is at the heart of virtually every religion. When confronted with a still-born baby or a spouse killed by a drunk driver or a cancer-stricken six-year-old, we all ultimately ask “Why?” Sometimes I sit in court or pick up a newspaper and can only shake my head. It’s almost impossible to satisfactorily account for uninvited tragedy, and no matter how you come at it, the whole scheme of things can often seem random and merciless. When we receive what we perceive to be a stone-solid, undeserved screwing, we’re either going to make the leap of faith and buy into religion, or abandon it and become cynical. As someone who’s had his share of worldly ass-kickings but still chooses to believe, I guess I like my minister’s explanation as well as any I’ve heard: “Look,” he says to me, “you certainly wouldn’t want to count on a Creator so simple that even you could figure out his majesty.”

Q:Plain Heathen Mischief travels from Roanoke, Virginia, to Las Vegas, to Missoula, Montana. Why did you choose to set the novel in these cities? Are these places especially close to your heart?

A:Roanoke, Virginia is one of my favorite cities–friendly, classy and full of charm. Missoula, Montana has the best trout fishing in the country, if not the world. And Las Vegas is a city that comes as billed, with all the glitz, decadence, gambling and rococo excesses you’d expect. As for the last two places, it’s hard to beat a three-in-the-morning blackjack at the Golden Nugget or a day of fly-fishing on the Bitterroot.

Q:Your novel takes on, among many things, perjury, bribery, theft, crooked cops and people who get away with murder. Doesn’t speak too highly of our justice system. Are these things you’ve seen first hand?
A:The court system is flooded with lies, cons, scams, flip-flops, zigzags and pitifully dumb excuses. For instance, several years ago a defendant–with look-you-in-the-eye-earnestness–told twelve jurors that he had confessed to sodomizing a young boy so the child wouldn’t be charged with making a false report to the police. That was an especially nice touch; this cad was so concerned about the kid who’d reported him that he didn’t want to get the victim in trouble by contradicting his story. Then there’s the daily appearance of the “two dudes” defense and all its variants: “Really, this TV is stolen? Hey, I got it from two dudes–one was named Harold and the other was this guy from South Carolina they call ‘Ace.’ Never seen them before that day, ain’t seen them since.” People lie all the time; they lie to get money or property or an extra twenty dollars shaved from a child support payment. That doesn’t mean, though, that the system itself is broken or corrupt. Most judges I know–in fact every judge I know–is honest and decent. All things given, I think we do a good job of wading through all the bogs and swearing contests to get a satisfactory outcome.

Q:How did you come to be one of the youngest circuit court judges in the history of the commonwealth of Virginia and what made you decide to turn your talents to

A:Judges in Virginia are appointed by the legislate based on the recommendations of local bar groups. Inasmuch as I got the gig, it’s probably no surprise to anyone that I think we have a good system. You’re nominated by the people who are going to have to live with you, who’ve worked with you, and who’ve broken bread with you at the diner around the corner from the courthouse. Then you’re questioned and scrutinized by the general assembly. The idea of popularly elected judges strikes me as ludicrous and unworkable–I mean, what platform do you run on? Elect me and I’ll abolish The Bill of Rights? More dollars for plaintiffs with soft-tissue injuries only chiropractors can identify? And what do you do when the lawyer who gave you ten grand shows up in your court? As for my age relative to my job–I started on the bench when I was thirty-three–it’s just one of those things that happened. I wish I had a better story to tell about it, but I don’t.

To answer the other part of your question, I started writing in college, and I have the rejection letters to prove it. One editor wrote back and told me that my writing gave her vertigo; I still have that one. When I became a judge, I’d already written several chapters of Mobile Home Living.

Q:A young judge with curly dark haired makes a very brief appearance in this novel. Hmmm…
A:Nah, I’m now a middle-age judge with short graying hair.

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