four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
By: 
Martin Clark
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
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A-The Legal LimitMartin Clark, a circuit court judge in a small Virginia town, based this standout legal thriller on a true story. His previous books include The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living (2000) and Plain Heathen Mischief (2004).

The Story: While Mason Hunt, in his early 20s, discards his impoverished childhood for a career as an attorney, his older brother, Gates—a former high school football hero—turns to crime. Though different, they share a bond and an uneven debt: Gates protected Mason from their abusive father. One night, a face-off with a redneck leads to murder. Although Gates shoots in self-defense, the brothers cover up the crime and move on. Mason marries a beautiful woman and becomes district attorney in rural Virginia, but Gates lands in jail for drug trafficking. Resentful of Mason’s inability to free him, Gates blackmails his brother—and Mason finds himself in a moral quagmire and on the wrong side of the law.
Knopf. 356 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307268357

Oregonian 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Legal Limit, [Clark’s] third novel, is a model for how to write a literary legal thriller with a wry sense of humor. … [This] is probably the best courthouse story I’ve ever heard or read: compelling characters, surprising twists, rich details, all told in a knowing voice that will affect the way you view destiny, God, the human condition and the heady concept of justice." Mark Lindquist

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"While his earlier books were enjoyable romps, his new novel reveals a mature writer. … [T]his time, a gravitas accompanies his masterful telling of a story of life and death, crime and punishment, sin and redemption, and the chasm that sometimes opens up between the law and justice." Michael Roden

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"This is the sort of book Graham Greene used to call ‘an entertainment’—which is to say, sufficient skillful attention has been paid to the niceties of plot to make the story enjoyable reading, while the moral and social contexts have been treated with enough sophistication to make them engrossing but not overbearing. … This one, in other words, is sort of Elmore Leonard meets John Grisham, but very smart and procedurally realistic—think Scott Turow with lots of crackling Southern dialogue and a plot wound as tightly as a watch." Tim Rutten

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Clark] 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.’ … 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." Vikas Turakhia

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"As good as the atmospherics are, what’s best about The Legal Limit is Clark’s ability to delineate Mason’s ethical and emotional quandary as he is forced to choose between blood and principle. Skillfully weaving a plot that includes lie detectors, wiretaps and arcane legal principles, the author creates a world in which family ties can easily turn into nooses." Stephen Amidon

Critical Summary

In this crime/legal thriller, Clark explores the boundaries between law and justice, sin and forgiveness, fraternal bonds and betrayal. Mason stands at the center of an ethical dilemma, but he is no less compelling than his brother, their mother, and even Mason’s partner. Clark "draws characters as well as Scott Turow and crafts plots as well as John Grisham," notes the Oregonian, but reviewers agreed that Clark’s background has given him superior understanding of legal intricacies. Humor, sharp, regional dialogue, and impeccable plotting make for an unstoppable narrative. Only the Los Angeles Times faulted Clark for sinking "into that soft-focus therapeutic argot that now passes for American moralizing." In the end, however, The Legal Limit compellingly shows that "doing justice does not always flow from a rigid application of the law" (Chicago Sun-Times).