The Jezebel Remedy

  • By Martin Clark
  • Alfred A. Knopf
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Susan Guthrie Knight
  • August 5, 2015

Husband-and-wife attorneys find themselves embroiled in fraud, deceit, and murder in this descriptive but poorly plotted novel.

In The Jezebel Remedy, Joe and Lisa are married law partners in a small county in Virginia. As successful attorneys, they know most people in the county and handle their divorces, lawsuits, contracts, and whatever other legal hassles come their way. Joe is “a graceful and handsome man,” but not “gangly or beanpole,” with thick dark hair and a “face full of fierce calm that was laid in deep and precise, difficult to budge.” He is known as “the most honest lawyer in the state.”

Lisa is “smart as hell,” and even in her 40s, she is gorgeous, “the beneficiary of a rarefied, finely fashioned perfection.” Lisa and Joe have been married 20 years, and although Lisa loves Joe, she is growing tired of his quirks; she is becoming restless.

Joe’s least-favorite client, Lettie VanSandt, has little money but plenty of time to file suits, create trusts, remake wills, and generally irritate every official in the county. Lettie is matchstick thin, but she has “gussied herself up with three nose rings,” a gold front tooth, and a “tongue piercing, a tiny silver barbell she could rattlesnake out from behind the gold tooth.” She dabbles in chemistry, and officials suspect she is cooking meth in her ramshackle trailer. When her place explodes with her in it, no one is surprised, and the general feeling is one of relief

Nice-guy Joe, who has been named executor of Lettie's estate, is approached by her son, who wants the lawyer to sign over Lettie’s assets to him. After some thought, Joe does. Thus begins a convoluted legal battle testing Joe and Lisa’s abilities, ingenuity, and morality on more than one level.

It appears Lettie has been cooking up a “wound healer” she sent to a friend to be tested at a large corporation. The salve has hidden properties that make it very attractive to the corporation, and its president, Seth Garrison. When Garrison approaches Lettie’s son to buy the salve, Joe stalls, and hints the son may not have ownership of the miracle lotion. The corporation tries to buy Joe and Lisa off, and when that doesn’t work, Garrison manufactures fraudulent paperwork and testimony and sues them, threatening their licenses to practice law. Their livelihood, reputations, and integrity are on the line. Suit and countersuit, lies, and deceit multiply.

Author Martin Clark, a Virginia circuit court judge, is extremely, almost poetically, adept at dialogue and description, but he struggles with plot development. His books are law-oriented, so much so that lawyers will enjoy the give and take of court life, but to the average reader, the excursions into legalese are tedious at best and distracting at worst. They are meant to carry the plot forward but instead drag it down.  

Some characters do things against their better nature simply because the author wants them to. Honest Joe, for instance, lies to the corporate president about ownership of the “wound healer” just to get a reaction, which creates a precarious situation since he has signed everything over to Lettie’s son. Lisa has an affair for no obvious reason other than boredom and spends the rest of the novel angsting about it, apparently just to provide an amusing plot twist at the end. Clark introduces new characters who exemplify the minutiae of the legal process (more lawyers on both sides of the issue) but mean little to the average reader.

In the end, the narrative has become so twisted that the only way out of the legal tangle, and to save Joe and Lisa’s reputations, is with a deus ex machina, leaving the reader with a number of “what if” questions. What if the beautiful Lisa, as might have happened, tried to impersonate the weird and ugly Lettie? What happened to the son in all this? If the body in the burned-out trailer is not Lettie, who is it, and who is responsible for the crime? And what kind of lawyers have Joe and Lisa become?

Unfortunately, they're all questions the author has chosen to leave unanswered.

Susan Guthrie Knight is a sometime writer and compulsive reader. She lives north of Gettysburg, PA, surrounded by orchards, with her French bulldog, Fannie.

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