One character says it all: “Hired guns and secret formulas. Damn.”
On the other hand, that’s not quite all there is to this fourth crime novel by Clark, who’s also a Virginia circuit court judge. Certainly there’s at least one secret formula at stake. But before all that happens, there’s the matter of a cranky, tattooed, stray-animal–collecting recluse named Lettie VanSandt, who’s found dead in a house fire set off by cooking crystal methamphetamine. The part about hard drugs emits a faintly fishy smell to her lawyers, Joe and Lisa Stone, a hip, happily married couple who run a mom-and-pop practice in a southern Virginia county still reeling from recession. “Lettie’s a lot of things, but she’s not a druggie,” Joe says. They set their doubts aside for a bit while working on Lettie’s estate. In the process, they discover that drug dealers are, indeed, involved; but only the more corporate, commercially legitimate kind who want something Lettie discovered and will stop at nothing to get it. While lives and reputations are in the balance, Lisa’s wrestling with her conscience over a marital indiscretion with implications that hover above the wrangling, haggling, and stalking that pervade this story. At times, Clark gets wrapped up in legal procedure and technical verisimilitude that threaten to waylay the plot’s momentum. Even the adultery angle seems to have, at best, an extraneous relationship with everything else that's going on. For all the book's shortcomings, its snappy repartee, shrewd regional observations, and quirky characterizations help one understand why Clark’s been compared to the likes of Elmore Leonard and, especially, Carl Hiaasen. Indeed, Clark seems to be doing for contemporary Virginia’s strip-mall suburbs what Hiassen has done for South Florida’s urban playgrounds and remote swamps: bringing out its dark comedy while identifying its criminal tendencies.
Clark seems to potentially have a good thing here with Joe and Lisa Stone, who come across as a laid-back, country-rock spin on Nick and Nora Charles. They deserve another (and, yes, better) chance.