The long arm of the law evades decency in this short story collection.
Clarke’s sharp debut consists of nine tales concerning Washington, D.C.’s underbelly, from haunted public servants to downtrodden misfits. The collection opens with “Sweet Dreams Called Leavin’,” the story of Tommy Agee, an idealistic defense attorney trying to win his first jury trial for an innocent client. It introduces readers to the class and racial tensions that the author seems especially keyed into. “I could sleepwalk through the trial naked and still convict your client,” the prosecutor tells Agee early on. This callous calculation that borders on contempt for Washington’s poor citizens is often taken to task throughout the volume, most touchingly in the titular “Death By Grand Jury.” In it, a tough cop with little left to live for helps a teenage witness to a crime and her mother escape after he plays a part in forcing her to testify before a grand jury. Courtroom archetypes abound in this collection, and readers will see echoes of Agee in the young, smooth U.S. attorney sweet-talking the teen into a life-altering testimony. But Clarke is at his most rewarding when he subverts or complicates these archetypes. In “Birds Of A Feather,” the volume’s second story, a strange cat-and-mouse game plays out between a hardened defense attorney and Marvin Hawkins, his unlikable, shiftless client. The lawyer’s distaste for Hawkins compels the client to take his defense into his own hands. This gumptious plan then forces the attorney to reassess both his ability to do his job and Hawkins in a way he doesn’t anticipate. The author produces strong character studies for his main subjects. The stakes they face infuse each tale with a cinematic quality, which is aided by often tidy endings. The actual twist in “Birds Of A Feather” is easy to see coming, as is the pivotal decision an ailing hit man makes during a job in “A Shooting On R Street.” These endings are comforting in their familiarity, but their simplicity often betrays the complicated character work Clarke has done.
Compelling tales trapped in a prison of formulaic storytelling.