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The Ties That Bind

Sunday, July 20, 2008

THE LEGAL LIMIT

By Martin Clark

Knopf. 356 pp. $24.95

Martin Clark's compelling legal thriller may be set in southern Virginia, but it also occupies the no-man's-land between what is lawful and what is just. Its central character, Mason Hunt, is a young attorney who finds his ascent from hardscrabble childhood to career success undermined by his complex relationship with his older brother, Gates, a former high school football hero turned bad. Mason knows Gates is poison but cannot forget the debt he owes his brother for protecting him from their abusive father. The inevitable trouble comes one drunken night when the Hunt boys, still in their early 20s, find themselves cornered by a vengeful redneck on a deserted country road.

The brothers cover up the resulting crime, and Mason goes on to marry a beautiful artist and work as the district attorney in his home town of Stuart, in Patrick County. Hunt's life takes a very different trajectory; his wild ways land him in jail on a 44-year sentence for drug trafficking. He comes to resent his younger brother's refusal to use his power to spring him. Fraternal bitterness leads to blackmail, leaving Mason "morally hog-tied, an accessory after the fact, the entire damnable bundle laid at his feet by someone he loved dearly."

In The Legal Limit, Clark, a circuit court judge in Stuart and the author of two acclaimed novels, The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living and Plain Heathen Mischief, has struck a fine balance between down-home ambiance and high-octane plot.

His Patrick County is "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." It is a place where people carry their dope in Allman Brothers cassette covers and the cocktail of choice is "SunDrop and vodka without any ice to dilute the potency." Clark has a fine way with characters, such as the brothers' beleaguered mother, whose youthful beauty had "long ago been swallowed whole, replaced by sags and pallor and veins popped by punch-clock days on unforgiving factory floors." Equally memorable is Mason's wisecracking African American assistant, who must hide a painful secret as he negotiates the region's racial fault lines.

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's most recent novel is "Human Capital."

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