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Bold new voice in thrillers

The Legal Limit; A Novel; Martin Clark; Alfred A. Knopf: 368 pp., $24.95

July 09, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

It DOES Martin Clark's fine new novel, "The Legal Limit," no injustice at all to call it perfect summer reading.

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. It is, in other words, fun you can think about.

What more could you ask from a novel to read on holiday?

Clark brings unusual credentials to what is essentially a legal thriller. Now 47, he's been a circuit court judge in a small Virginia town since the age of 32. He's the author of two previous novels, both highly praised. In "The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living" (2000), a judge bored with his life and estranged from his wife sets off with his pot-addled brother on a picaresque journey to recover a very strange woman's allegedly stolen money. In "Plain Heathen Mischief" (2004), a disgraced Baptist minister gets out of jail to find his wife divorcing him and the teenage girl he may or may not have seduced suing him for millions. He too sets off on a surreal road trip and may or may not find salvation in high-end insurance scams.

"The Legal Limit" is a darker, more grounded story, perhaps because -- as Clark informs us in a provocative first-person introduction and afterward -- the story is essentially a roman a clef on an actual case that came to his attention as a judge in Stuart, Va. The result is a kind of corkscrew riff on Cain and Abel told with a gritty sort of specificity that reflects the spirit, as well as the practice of criminal law. 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.

Bloody brothers

Gates and Mason are brothers in a small Virginia town -- sons to a fond and patient mother, survivors of a sadistic and brutally alcoholic father now gone. Gates is a dangerous screw-up in training; his younger brother Mason is a lawyer-to-be attending a Boston law school on scholarship. While home on holiday, Mason accompanies Gates on an evening out during which the older brother shoots a young man to death during a confrontation by the side of a rural road. There are no witnesses, and Mason concocts an alibi for his brother and disposes of the gun. It becomes a secret that binds them through the years. Decades later, Mason -- now a grieving widower and father to a beloved daughter -- finds himself back in his hometown as commonwealth attorney. Gates, meanwhile, has become a habitual felon, serving 44 years in prison for his part in a bungled cocaine ring.

Bitter and self-pitying, Gates demands that his brother use his legal connections to secure him a pardon. When Mason declines, Gates falsely accuses him of the murder; a special prosecutor is appointed and Mason is indicted. What follows is an intricate but propulsive journey through the gritty moral ambiguities of the criminal courts.

Good and bad writing

Clark has a shrewd and thoughtful grasp of this terrain. At law school, Mason attends a seminar with Jim "Bulldog" Young, "one of the best trial lawyers in Virginia, a charming, robust man whose genuine decency never failed to influence a jury and whose capacity to take a witness apart and not seem like a showboat had served him well for 30 years of practice."

Asked by one of the students what the most important aspect of trying a murder case is, Young casually replies: "Only thing that matters in a murder case is did the fellow who's dead need to be killed, and did the right sonofabitch do the job." As someone who has -- for reasons both professional and personal -- spent an inordinate amount of time around successful defense attorneys from all over the country, this reader has heard variations on that sentiment spoken in accents from Brooklyn to Bakersfield. Juries, good defense lawyers will tell you, hate a mystery; they want answers and -- whatever the law may say -- more than a few are inclined to believe that a lot of dead people deserve to be that way.

Clark has a sure ear for regional dialogue -- a quality that often seems to attach itself naturally to the adjective "Southern" and the noun "writer" -- and a vigorous, if somewhat wordy descriptive touch, particularly in the action sequences. Those are formidable tools of exposition, and a reader is inclined to wish that the author trusted a bit more in his abilities to deploy them in the service of his story. Instead, there's a tendency just strong enough to be mildly annoying to sink into that soft-focus therapeutic argot that now passes for American moralizing, whatever the region. Thus, flat-footed passages like this one, as the good brother Gates worries that the bad brother Mason will indiscreetly reveal his guilt and his sibling's complicity:

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