The Washington Post
The Legal Limitby Martin Clark
Gates Hunt is a compulsive felon, serving a stiff penitentiary sentence for selling cocaine. His brother, Mason, however, has escaped their bitter, impoverished upbringing to become the commonwealth's attorney for their rural hometown in Virginia, where he enjoys a contented life with his wife and spitfire daughter. But Mason's idyll is abruptly pierced by a wicked… See more details below
Gates Hunt is a compulsive felon, serving a stiff penitentiary sentence for selling cocaine. His brother, Mason, however, has escaped their bitter, impoverished upbringing to become the commonwealth's attorney for their rural hometown in Virginia, where he enjoys a contented life with his wife and spitfire daughter. But Mason's idyll is abruptly pierced by a wicked tragedy, and soon afterward trouble finds him again when he is forced to confront a brutal secret he and his brother had both sworn to take with them to the grave, a secret that threatens everyone and everything he holds dear.Intricately plotted and relentlessly entertaining, The Legal Limit is an exploration of the judicial system's roughest edges, as well as a gripping story of murder, family, and the difficult divide that sometimes separates genuine justice from the law.
The Washington Post
The New York Times
Clark's profound and moving third novel (after Plain Heathen Mischief and Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living) explores the disparity between justice and jurisprudence. Mason Hunt, while visiting his mother at home in Virginia during his final year of law school, inadvertently becomes the sole witness to his deadbeat brother Gates's cold-blooded murder of a man on a back road in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the crime's aftermath, the brothers vow to keep their involvement secret. Years later, Gates is incarcerated for an unrelated crime, while Mason goes on to become a prestigious attorney. Then Mason's life is turned upside down when Gates, in a desperate attempt to free himself, turns state witness against Mason and accuses his brother of murder. Clark, a circuit-court judge, takes his storytelling prowess to the next level in what is his most substantial and thought-provoking work to date. Author tour. (July)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
—Los Angeles Times
“A model of 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.”
—Mark Lindquist, The Oregonian
“Deep yet playful. . . . A novel of ample graces.”
—Allison Glock, The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling…. High octane…. 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, The Washington Post
“Masterful.... A story of life and death, crime and punishment, sin and redemption, and the chasm that sometimes opens up between the law and justice.”
“An edge-of-your-seat legal thriller.... Take it to the beach and turn its pages breathlessly. Then mull over its deeper themes on that long ride home.”
"Funny, smart and Southern to the bone...[The Legal Limit] packs a wallop...it's so intoxicating that it doesn't just dazzle Clark's reviewers, it inspires them."
—J. Peder Zane, The News & Observer
"[The Legal Limit] is filled to the brim with creamy, substantive, compelling prose...the manner in which the intricacies of the law, truth, justice and friendship [are] handled is masterful...This is writing at its best."
—Barbara Rich, The Daily Progress
"With The Legal Limit, Clark has outdone himself again. His novels just keep getting better...He's got the right gifts to draw the raw materials from real life and spin them into well-plotted, beautifully phrased, imaginative works of fiction...Martin Clark is the new standard by which other works of legal fiction should be judged." —Linda Brinson, Winston-Salem Journal
"Clark conveys the joys of small-town life with an eye for detail and the beauty of worn, familiar things."
—Salem Macknee, The Charlotte Observer
“Clark’s wise, knowing novel [is] a superb thriller that ponders family, fraternal loyalty, marital love, child rearing, loss, integrity, tolerance, the fault line between law and justice, and even the economic well-being of a community.”
—Booklist, starred review
“A masterful mix of legal arcana and white-knuckle suspense.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“Profound and moving…[Clark’s] most substantial and thought-provoking work to date.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
The shooting came in October 1984, abrupt and rash, a quicksilver bang.
The day it happened, Mason Hunt had spent most of his morning settled into the afghan-covered recliner at his mother’s house, watching a nondescript brown and tan and gray wren fly against the big den window again and again as it tried to punch through the glass, the bird evidently sickly or a bona fide lunatic, remaining behind while its kin abandoned Virginia and migrated farther south. Despite the suicidal thumps and flutters that gained it nothing and left it pitifully outside its hope, the misguided bird never learned a lesson or gave up on its headlong, full-steam shortcut to sanctuary, never stopped, kept at the foolishness for hours. Mason was home from his final year of law school, visiting his mother and enjoying her flapjacks and rich casseroles for a weekend, waiting for his older brother, Gates, to arrive so they could saw up a maple tree that had blown over in the front yard and stack it into winter firewood. By the time Gates pulled in the gravel drive at eleven thirty, Mason had finished two cups of coffee, napped, read three issues of the Stuart Enterprise and carted the kerosene heater from the basement to its spot near the couch, even though there was no fuel in it and the weather wouldn’t turn cold for another month or so. Soon after he heard Gates cut his Corvette’s ignition, Mason noticed that the bird had quit its sallies and was stuck in a holly bush next to the window, one wing draped across a run of green, prickly leaves, its beak gapped, its head listing and its feet dangling, unable to take hold of anything.
Gates opened the mudroom door but didn’t move too far past the threshold, let out his neck like a terrapin leaving its armor to get a better view of Mason and his mother. “Hello, Mama,” he said in a voice a few notches above normal.
“Gates,” she said, not looking up from her kitchen work. She was peeling green baking apples, circling off the skin in deft turns and cuts that went from stem to bottom without a hitch.
“What’re you cooking?” he asked, leaning against the doorjamb.
“A pie.” The two words were absolutely neutral, ciphers. “The phone not workin’ where you were at last night?”
“I’m sorry; I know I promised I’d call when I can’t make it home. You forgive me?”
“It’s common courtesy, Gates—if you’re living under my roof you could at least let me know where you are. Twenty-seven years old, and it’s the only thing I ask from you.”
“It won’t happen again.”
“Perhaps you should ground him or take away TV privileges,” Mason joked, trying to lighten the mood.
“There you go,” Gates said. “That’ll keep me on the straight and narrow.”
“You ready to get started?” Mason asked, bending over to retie his shoes.
“Sure. Yep. Ready, ready, ready. Ready as can be.” Gates was wearing a Washington Redskins jersey with the name “Hunt” stenciled across the back in gold block letters. Five inches over six feet tall, he didn’t fit well into the doorframe. “Mason, man, I need you to run an errand with me before we take care of the tree, and then we’re right back here lickety-split.” He glanced at their mother. She still didn’t look in his direction.
“An errand?” Mason repeated.
“You boys be careful with the saw,” Sadie Grace Hunt said from the kitchen. “Chain saws are dangerous, Gates.” She finally made eye contact with him.
“Yes, ma’am,” Gates answered. “You don’t need to worry about us.”
“And if you’re goin’ somewhere with Mason”—she held the paring knife in front of her, pointing it at the ceiling—“you let him drive, you hear?”
“If it’ll make you happy, then I’d be delighted to have my little brother chauffeur me around.” He winked at Mason, promised his mom he’d be back for a piece of warm pie and headed out the door.
Mason was a large man as well, two inches shorter than his brother and not as thick through the shoulders and trunk, but substantial enough that the Corvette’s passenger seat was uncomfortable. The shape hit him all wrong, and he had trouble with his knees. He didn’t attempt the safety belt. “Damn, Gates, what—you just start distilling the hooch in your car, cut out the middleman? It smells like a speakeasy in here.” There was a plastic Star Wars cup—a faded fast-food giveaway—resting on the console; the contents were yellowish green, SunDrop and vodka without any ice to dilute the potency.
“I’ll roll the windows down and drive real fast.” Gates nudged a cassette with his index finger and a mechanism eased it from sight, inhaling it into the dash. He had recorded a Huey Lewis and the News album onto the tape, and “I Want a New Drug” came on mid-refrain. “While we’re on the subject, can I offer you a little nip?” he asked. “I’ve got vodka and a bottle of Wild Turkey Denny gave me for my birthday.”
“I’ll pass,” Mason said. “Thanks just the same. It’s a bit early, isn’t it?” The question didn’t have any bite in it, wasn’t a rebuke. He grinned at his brother.
“I’m grandfathered in for the entire day, a carryover from last night. So long as you don’t stop, it’s just a continuation, not the same as drinking for breakfast or somethin’ pathetic and alcoholic.” Remarkably, besides the odor and a few aggravated blood vessels in his eyes, Gates seemed fairly level. An occasional syllable was spit-heavy, but that was about it. “Our pal Robbie Hanes is leavin’ for the Navy, so we had a throwdown yesterday for him at the Woolwine Ruritan building. That’s why I’m behind schedule—the party took us hostage and wouldn’t let us go.”
“I’d have never pegged Robbie for duty on the high seas.”
Gates reached under his seat and located a Crown Royal bag, a deep-purple felt sack with bold yellow stitching and matching yellow drawstrings. He set the bag in his lap and took out a vial of cocaine and an elaborate spoon, the spoon either silver or pewter, in the shape of a mermaid, her hair serving as a grip, her toes clutching a tiny scoop. “I need to boost my shit, brother. I’m assuming you’re still not interested?”
“If I tried it, I’d probably like it way too much. In no time at all, I’d be pissing myself and scavenging butts from ashtrays at the bus terminal. Quoting Timmy Leary at the homeless shelter. Thanks just the same.” Mason turned down the music. “Perhaps we’d be wise to get out of Mom’s sight before you start doing that.”
“Only take a sec.” Gates dipped the spoon into the powder, raised it to his nose and snorted—hard—three times.
“By the way, why does everyone I know carry his dope in a Crown Royal bag? Or the cassette cover for an Allman Brothers tape? Can you explain that to me? I think the Supreme Court’s decided the cops have probable cause to search whenever they spot either of those in a car, regardless of the circumstances.”
“You have a better suggestion?” Gates wiped his nose, then sipped his drink. “The bag’s a pretty damn fine creation.”
“True. Can’t argue with you there.”
“You like the album?” Gates asked. “Huey Lewis and the News?”
“Yeah. It’s okay, though it’s a shame they don’t get any more airtime than they do. And I always feel like Huey might be sort of pulling our leg musically.”
“Too much schoolin’, I’m sorry to say, has made you into a boring smart-ass.” Gates fired the engine and they crept down the gravel drive, the car chugging and straining in first gear, the tachometer barely registering because Gates didn’t want to risk nicking the paint with kicked-up gravel.
“Where’re we going?” Mason asked. “What kind of mischief are you dragging me into?”
“Nothing too tough, I promise. Robbie’s leavin’ behind a nice dresser, and he said I could have it. You and me are going to meet Claude and him in Woolwine, load the dresser onto Claude’s pickup and haul it to Denise’s trailer.”
“How are you two doing? You and Denise, I mean?”
“Everything’s cool. She got a promotion at work—off the floor and into the office—and she finally finished her associate’s degree. Looks like a million bucks, still crazy about me.” He made a goofy face after the last declaration. “We’re thinkin’ about maybe considering buying a house together. The old Mabe home is for sale. I love that place—it’s on five acres, has a nice pond and a humongous porch for cookouts and warm-weather drinkin’. Man, you could just put the speakers in the windows, grill a steak, invite friends by. Only problem is that I need my luck to improve so I can pull my part, you know? I’m hopin’ this insurance job with State Farm comes through, so I can quit living fuckin’ hand to mouth.”
“Good for you. I think the world of her.”
Mason wanted to maneuver more space for his knees and shins, but the seat was at its limit, had no play in it. “It’ll take us two hours to drive to Woolwine, load the dresser, then drive to Denise’s and unload, don’t you figure?” He wriggled into a new position.
“Close to it. You can call Mom from Robbie’s and give her an update.” Gates sniffed and touched his nostrils with the back of his hand. “So long as we have the tree done by dark, we should be okay.”
“We have all morning tomorrow if we need it,” Mason said, flashing his brother a wry smile.
It took them several minutes to cover the half mile of dirt and stone that led to the blacktop, but Gates slammed the accelerator the moment the wheels touched the asphalt, causing the car’s tires to spin and the rear end to break traction.
They met their friends and wrapped the piece of furniture in an old quilt and laid it in the bed of Claude’s pickup. Before they started to Denise’s, Robbie warmed barbecued pig and baked beans, left over from his party. He placed the food on the tailgate of the truck, and they all dug it straight out of tinfoil tubs with plastic forks and wiped their hands and faces on paper towels. Gates poured himself another mixed drink, and the other three men popped cold Miller beers. The truck’s doors were open, the radio playing, the hardwood trees in southside Virginia turning crimson, yellow and fire-orange, an occasional dry, brownish leaf sifting through the air on its way to the ground.
Denise’s mobile home was in Five Forks on a small parcel of land she was buying from her uncle. She was a hard worker and a smart, solid woman with restraint and sensible tastes uncommon for her circumstances, and she kept her yard and dwelling neat. Mums and azaleas and other flowers and bushes that Mason couldn’t identify were planted here and there, the grass was still green and nicely trimmed, and the property was free of birdbaths, kitschy cement animals, busted lawn chairs, junked Monte Carlos and matted cur dogs chained to a rusted post. Gates had helped her build and stain a covered deck; a single dragonfly wind chime hung from the four-by-four that supported the tacked-on roof, a friendly jack-o’-lantern welcomed visitors from the top step. Denise’s white Celica was parked in the drive, a Mazda RX-7 behind it, and the moment Gates saw the Mazda he became angry.
“Damn,” he snapped.
“What?” Mason peered across the interior at his brother. “What’s wrong?”
“That’s Wayne Thompson’s car.”
As Mason understood it, there had been a period when Gates and Denise, romantic since high school, had separated for a number of months. After Gates walked away from Virginia Tech, and after he failed to catch on with the Redskins, and after he declined a plum job at Masonite—human resources, a gig with dress shoes and a coffee mug, for heaven’s sakes—and after he barely squirmed out of a DWI over in North Carolina, and after Denise allowed as to how—six years removed from his graduation—he needed to find work, quit freeloading at his mother’s house and stop lollygagging around in the Corvette for hours on end, and after she finally gave him a deadline he spitefully ignored, after all this considerable forbearance, she sent him packing and began dating Wayne Thompson. Gates quickly enrolled in real estate school and signed a lease at the Dorn Williams apartment complex, begrudged measures that lasted just long enough to tamp down Denise’s ire but were sufficient to spark their reconciliation. At least he’d tried, she told friends who poor-mouthed her boyfriend and suggested she was making a mistake by offering him yet another chance.
There was also small-town scuttlebutt that Denise had slipped a time or two or three or five since reconciling with Gates, talk that she’d been spotted at the Tanglewood Beach Music Festival with Wayne or got– ten hooted with her girlfriends and mentioned him favorably or been seen picking up her car—early in the morning—from the elementary school parking lot not far from his house. And who could blame her, given what Gates had to offer and his headstrong, good-for-nothing nature?
From the Hardcover edition.
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"The Legal Limit" is one of those very rare books that both entertains and leaves its reader different than it found you. It is a fictional account of a murder case and how it works its way through the judicial system, written by someone (a Judge) who knows what he's talking about. The story, a tale of two brothers, is gripping and fast-paced. The scenes and situations seem real and are not your typical cardboard nonsense. The pages are packed with twists and surprises. The conversations are funny and even occasionally profound. Mr. Clark's writing is as smooth as a cold glass of tea on a summer day. The minor plots and lesser characters are perfect. I loved this book. It's one of the top three I've ever read, and I plan to go back and read the author's others.
I saw the big New York Times Book review ad boasting this was, according to several reviewers, 'the best legal thriller ever written' and so forth and so on and picked it up mainly because I was curious. Of course, not being a huge fan of the genre, that claim really didn't carry too much weight with me, sort of like being the best hitter in Double A baseball. Was I in for a pleasant surprise. First, Mr. 'Judge' Clark can write and seems to pay attention to language...the book is quite literary at times. For example, this description of the small town of Stuart, Va.: 'On balance, though, it is--and has been for decades--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.' Very good writing, and a clever take off on the word 'current'. There's a lot of this kind of very accomplished and polished writing. The novel begins with the gripping description of a murder...this isn't a spoiler...and the event is described so vividly that it actually made me tense. The plot from then on folds over itself and gains speed and grows branches until the end where it is brought together and tied off nicely. The main characters, Mason Hunt, Gates Hunt, Custis Norman and Allison Hunt, Mason's wife, are all adequately fleshed out. Mason is likeable, his brother not, and Mr. Clark does a good job of not making them too extreme or too cardboard-cutout. The theme of the book...it's lesson...is how we struggle in the legal system, and the world in general, with the tension between the law and what we know to be right. This is where THE LEGAL LIMIT shines. It makes the reader THINK! Like all good literature, it sticks with you and asks important questions, but does it alongside the telling of a great, entertaining story. Ultimately, this may be 'the best legal thriller ' ever written, but if it is, it's because Mr. 'Judge' Clark has taken such pains to make it more than the standard, three-page chapter novel that is the hallmark of much legal fiction. Highly reccomended to ALL readers.
A great dissapointment. Frightening that the author, a judge, could use such unethical and unmoral characters to reach an absurb conclusion. If book's main premise is that we are all dishonest and corrupt'just present the right rationale to show our dishonesty'then I would hate to be a defense attorney or prosecutor in this court - of law? plot is non-existent and the ending is revealed long before the last chapter. Great start-faded fast before the finish. Author says 'crime does pay?' Thanks Judge, we are enlightened.
Sorry, I cannot agree the with the first two reviewers or the book jacket. There were way too many extraneous characters. It was like filler until the legal question became clear around p. 197. The story went back and forth and back and forth with no excitement or suspense.
Martin Clark has the best stories. The locations are perfect. Hope his next will be in the surrounding counties of Patrick, i.e. Franklin Co., Roanoke, Bassett etc. Look forward to his next book.
Got thru 2 chapters, so very boring & slow to read.
After reading the reviews I was prepared for a mediocre read - SURPRISE!!! What some may mistake for slow is just a slow build to a great story..
One of the most intriguing and enjoyable books I've ever read. Not difficult to get through, but impressive in its scope, its knowledge of place and time, and the issues it presents. Unpretentious and, in its own way, brilliant.
This book is slow, the characters are shallow, and the author is trying too hard to meet the quality of John Grisham. Clark never succeeds in reaching this depth and interest of writing. Reading this book was like pulling teeth. Luckily, this book was given to me as a gift bc if I had spent my own money on it...I'd really be unhappy. I would/will not recommend this book to anyone.
Martin Clark has a surefire winning story in The Legal Limit. The total effect is near genius. Characters are the people from my home town--even next door. Good or bad, they become ingrained. The plot is full of suspense and becomes an "I-Can't-Put-It-Down-Until-I-Know-How-It-Ends" type of conflict and resolution. Humor, beautiful imagery, lyrical verbs--"an unexpected ice storm ENCASED the county, BEJEWELING branches and power lines," dozens of appropriately placed allusions on every type, and a perfect placing of real hometown characters and places render the story unique.
'The Legal Limit' is an excellent book in many regards. I'm a fan of Martin Clark and this is his best yet. In the novel, there's suspense, surprise, sadness, humor, wisdom, and a plot that twists and turns until the satisfying and thought-provoking end. The scenes, characters and places seem absolutely real, and you dive right into the novel from the first pages. Well done.
Basically Martin Clark is a better writer than John Grisham. Grisham's plots are compelling page turners, and I have always loved that and will continue to love that about his work. But Grisham's characters are never really THAT complex, his work, while ragingly popular, is basically two-dimensional, the moral challenges are usually fairly straightforward, with good and bad guys. Martin Clark, on the other hand, is smart enough to understand that human beings are complex, they are human, they have many facets, and the resulting novel is richer and deeper and less predictable and more thought-provoking. You know from the get-go in The Firm (which I always think of as my favorite, first Grisham book) that our heroic young lawyer is going to prevail over the bad guys, wherever they may be hidden. But with Clark, a more meaningful set of events occurs, surprising and unconventional, and bad things happen to good people. But it is a more powerful story, in the end, because as a reader you have to struggle with what is right and what is wrong, just as Clark does. Seeing as Clark is a sitting judge, and he appears to genuinely want (at least in writing this book) to explore the nuances of what 'justice' is, it makes this book important, like any book where you are trying to understand what the truth is, what is just, what is reality, what is fair. It might be a little bit of a stretch to compare these, but at the end of the day, War and Peace is about how hard it is describe what really happened in any event -- and in that case it is a war -- in a way that allows people to parcel out responsibility and understand who did what when. In the fog of war, a lot of that is lost, and what makes Tolstoy amazing is his capacity to follow the detailed threads of a life (actually, many many lives, he has so many rich and complex characters) through complex world events -- like a massive, extended, horrible war. What happens when people go home and talk about what the war was? Similarly in this book, Clark explores the PROBLEM of justice, which is different from the law. The LAW is easy -- just read, apply, rinse and repeat. JUSTICE is the application of the law based on what a judge is presented with. But what about when a Judge KNOWS things (because it is a small town, for instance) ...does the Judge use that information, properly, in handing out justice? I recommend this book because not only is it rich and thoughtful, but it is fun and funny and has some great local color (set in rural SW Virginia), and because I expect Clark has a few more of these in him as well. Keep an eye on this guy.
Author Martin Clark, a Virginia circuit judge, has written that while he has an interest in both the law and writing he had decided not to mix the two for a variety of valid reasons. His decision changed in 2003 when he was told a story, which he verified. We're in his debt for changing his mind as The Legal Limit is one of the most absorbing, though provoking tales to come along in many moons. Clark quickly notes that this is not a literal diary but as he puts it 'there are plenty of facts in these pages , but I've definitely retooled them to serve the story I wanted to tell.' 'Retooled' is the author's word, it would not be mine to describe this remarkable work. Clark's writing is precise, distinct, assured, painterly, if you will, as he describes a person or the small town of Stuart, Virginia. His skillful technique never overshadows his sensitivity to human foibles, and his plotting is so adroitly constructed that one is compelled to keep reading yet doesn't want the book to end. The Legal Limit's story is both as old as the Bible and as fresh as tomorrow. It is a tale of two brothers - Mason and Gates Hunt. Visiting home during his last year in law school, Mason is relaxed and happy. He's glad to be enjoying his mother's cooking and enjoying his older brother's company, even though Gates keeps cocaine in a Crown royal bag under the seat of his car and guzzles 'SunDrop and vodka without any ice to dilute the potency.' Most would probably see Gates as an intemperate jobless ne'er-do-well who still lives with his mother. But Mason sees him quite differently as he is the stronger older brother who protected him from the abuse of their father. What begins innocently enough as a visit to Gates's girlfriend, Denise, turns dark and ugly that night when Gates and Mason are pursued by Wayne who is a rival for Denise. Once the two cars stop on a dirt road Wayne tries to goad Gates into a fight - it doesn't take much doing, and then the totally unexpected tragedy. Mason quickly decides that for once he will be the protector and help his brother conceal his crime. That decision would change the course of his life, challenge his beliefs, and cause us to thoughtfully ponder the sometimes difference between law and justice. Highly recommended. - Gail Cooke
Mason Hun escaped his sadistic abusive father Curt with a college scholarship. When his father vanished, Mason, his older brother Gates and their mother Sadie rejoiced as no one was as mean as Curt was. In 1984 twenty-four years old law student Mason comes home to visit his beloved mother. He is on the back roads with Gates when his brother cold bloodedly shoots and kills a man who was playing with his girlfriend. Mason agrees to ignore what he witnessed as his sibling was always there keeping him safe from cruel Curt.--------------- Years later, Mason is happily married to Allison as they raise their daughter in Stuart. However, he is devastated when Allison dies in a car crash. In 2003, Gates seeking a pardon from prison turns state¿s evidence against his brother accusing Mason of murder almost two decades ago. A special prosecutor gets a grand jury to indict the attorney.--------------- This exciting family legal thriller is filled with suspense in and out of the courts in fact some of the strongest scenes involve in the estranged siblings and their mom in a variety of confrontations. Martin Clark makes a case that the law may be so blind that achieving justice often fails. Fans will relish this thought provoking tale as Mason learns blood may be thicker than water, but so is ketchup as betrayal can come from those who allegedly cherish you.-------------- Harriet Klausner