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Review: 'The Legal Limit' is complex and intriguing

For Virginia circuit court judge Martin Clark, courtroom verdicts don't always follow the clear dictates of the law. His latest novel, The Legal Limit, offers an explanation for one such decision, and through the engaging story, he gives a sense of the law's intricacies and consequences in a way John Grisham never could.

The novel, inspired by one of Clark's cases, follows two brothers in Patrick County, Va. Gates Hunt is a 27-year-old lout living with his mother, full of false promises of reform, while his younger brother, Mason, is finishing his final year of law school.

Despite their differences, the brothers are closely bonded through their experience of growing up with an abusive father, which means that when Gates, doped up and drunk, shoots and kills his girlfriend's ex-lover, Mason quickly concocts an alibi, takes precautions to make it stick and discards the weapon.

For Mason, the incident has long-term reverberations. His life moves on with a happy marriage, a child and a return to his hometown to become the commonwealth attorney, but Gates ends up with a 44-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.

What Mason doesn't anticipate is his brother's "rascal's capacity" and "gift for absolute self-preservation." Gates is willing to do anything to leave prison, even if it means dredging up the past and severing fraternal ties.

Clark's awareness of family makes the novel resonate. He understands the contradictions that can exist between brothers, as in the way that Mason helps Gates without question but simultaneously thinks his brother "was very much deserving of consequences, if not for the shooting, then for living his life as a wastrel and weighing down so many of the people around him."

Clark also has the skill of a natural storyteller. Entertaining side characters populate The Legal Limit, including Mason's partner Custis and a lawyer who "looks like the dwarf spawn of Pippi Longstocking and Alfred E. Newman," and Clark easily captures the "improvised, freewheeling, low-wattage hedonism" of small-town life.

But it's Mason's attempt to find a morally balanced solution to his troubles and Clark's grasp of the law's limitations that propel the novel. "The right ruling," he writes, "sometimes brings along its own tricks and complications." It can also make for a great story.

Vikas Turakhia is an English teacher in Ohio.

The Legal Limit

Martin Clark

Knopf, 368 pages,


Review: 'The Legal Limit' is complex and intriguing 07/13/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 3:42pm]
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