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Legal thriller falls short

There's such a thing as an artist whose reach outruns his grasp, who makes a great try, but doesn't quite get where he's aiming. Often, that kind of artist produces a work that's nonetheless as interesting as a more tightly crafted effort. That's the situation readers will find in Martin Clark's latest novel, The Legal Limit.

Clark -- whose previous novels, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living and Plain Heathen Mischief, won critical accolades -- is a Virginia circuit court judge with a wicked sense of humor, as shown in those two earlier books. Although there's humor to spare in The Legal Limit, it's also a serious take on the fine lines that run between the law and actual justice.

The novel is a fictionalization of a 1984 murder case that provided Clark with all the moral quandaries and ethical labyrinths he could wish for. It's the story of Mason Hunt, the product of a dismal, brutal Stuart, Va. household, who, as a young law student, comes home to visit. He winds up caught in the out of control ways of his older brother Gates, a former high school football star whose life, and character, has gone to hell in a handbasket. Mason feels an obligation to Gates for having protected him as a child from their abusive father, even though the older sibling is now an angry, self-absorbed jerk. That obligation turns on Mason when, in the course of one drunken evening, the two brothers are confronted by a violent, ill-tempered redneck on a lonely back road. Gates commits a serious crime while resolving the conflict, and Mason helps him cover it up. It's a decision that will haunt him for over 20 years.

Mason goes on to success as a Richmond attorney, marries a successful artist and has a live-wire daughter, while Gates sinks into a worthless existence, living off girlfriends, dealing small amounts of cocaine or pot to make a pitiful living, feeling sorry for himself and staying mad as hell at the world. His ratty lifestyle and crappy attitude almost inevitably land him in big trouble, and he's sent to prison for 44 years for a coke deal gone bad. Eventually, Mason returns to Stuart as district attorney. He's soon contacted by the ever self-pitying, increasingly desperate Gates, who wants his younger brother to pull strings to get him out of prison. When Mason refuses to bend the law for a brother he's grown to despise, he finds himself the target of investigators who start asking him about that night on a Stuart back road two decades ago. Gates is blackmailing him, of course, and Mason finds his career and family endangered and himself "morally hog-tied, an accessory after the fact, the entire damnable bundle laid at his feet by someone he loved dearly."

Clark has a knack for describing life in a small burg, "a splendid, serene, no-frills spot where the population is satisfied to be on the banks of the mainstream, clear of the current, passed by." He's also an ace at developing flesh-and-blood characters who breathe and walk around the page, particularly, in this case, Mason's nauseating brother Gates and the Hunt brothers' burdened mother whose former good lucks had "long ago been swallowed whole, replaced by sags and pallor and veins popped by punch-clock days on unforgiving factory floors." Not so believable, or rather not believable at all, is Mason's wisecracking assistant DA, Custis, who, we're supposed to believe, has been welcomed by the small town of Stuart, Va. although he's a) not from Stuart, b) a 6-foot-7-inch black man and c) sporting dreadlocks. Clark also stretches credulity when readers are asked to accept that Custis has been able to keep a deep personal secret from residents of the tiny, gossipy town for years.

Overall, Clark does so many things right in this novel, it makes it doubly disappointing that he fumbles the ending, finally unable to negotiate his story's main conflict -- namely, Mason's ethical and moral struggles between what to do, if anything, for his brother, and his commitment to the law and his daughter. The story calls for wrenching inner dialogues, but in the end what Clark hands out are dry, overlong legal debates between protagonists that would have been better suited for a classroom discussion than a mystery. The final denouement is equally disappointing, consisting of arcane legal maneuvers that leave the reader wishing for more fire in the gut, or at least one jaw busted in a fight, anything other than what we get.

The Legal Limit is an odd book in the sense that it starts out like gangbusters, zips through clever situations and sparkling characterizations, reaches a scary peak and then, in the last 100 or so pages, turns into a drowsy legal debating society. I was looking forward to writing a glowing review of Martin Clark's new book, but in the end felt let down by an author who either bit off more than he could chew, or wasn't given enough time by his publisher to finish chewing.

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