July 8, 2008

“The Legal Limit” by Martin Clark

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist  
First published in The Oregonian

Martin Clark, a judge in Virginia, draws characters as well as Scott Turow and crafts plots as well as John Grisham.  “The Legal Limit,” his third novel, is a model for how to write a literary legal thriller with a wry sense of humor. 

This novel, however, is based on a true story, as they say in Hollywood. In the prologue Clark admits he has been tempted, like other writer/lawyers, to move to non-fiction, to write an “insider’s book about the legal system.” He’s resisted the temptation for two main reasons: 1) because he doesn’t want to lift the curtain to expose the inner workings of a system that requires a certain “dignity” and “mystique” to function effectively, and 2) because “day-to-day jurisprudence is a numbing, flat, repetitive affair.”

That said, a case finally came across his desk that changed his mind, at least partly. This book is “done as fiction,” but “it is at its core a reasonably accurate account of lives and happenings I discovered only because of my job.” 

Lucky Clark, and lucky us, because 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.

Mason Hunt and Gates Hunt grow up with an abusive fool of a father who eventually, mercifully, abandons them. Mason becomes a prosecuting attorney in their home town, and Gates becomes a drug-dealing ne’er-do-well who eventually kills a man.  

Though the shooting is arguably in self-defense, Mason helps cover it up so that the killing goes unsolved. This seems contrary to Mason’s character, except that Gates, his older brother, continually protected Mason from their sadistic father and Mason is bound to him with a “visceral, epic connection.”

Life goes on. Gates ends up in prison for drug dealing, and Mason ends up married with a daughter. In one of the many strange and dark twists of this story, Mason agrees to give a kid a break on a Driving Under the Influence charge, and not long after that, the kid crashes into Mason’s wife, killing her.

Though the kid is not drunk, his driver’s license would have been suspended but for the break on the DUI, but maybe he would have driven anyway? As one of the characters remarks, “Who can say?”

After this stroke of bad luck, Mason’s life takes another dip downward when his brother, still in prison and increasingly bitter and crazy, decides Mason has wronged him by not using his position to free him.  Gates discloses Mason’s cover-up to police and Mason is charged with murder and the story appears to be headed toward your typical third act courtroom denouement. 

The trial, however, never happens.

What does happen involves as much legal intrigue and maneuvering as any trial, but is less definite, and somehow more satisfying.

Clark plays a small but pivotal role in the outcome. He not only proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction, but that judges are people, too.