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Cain and Abel go to court

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?

Clark brings unusual credentials to what is essentially a legal thriller. Now 47, he's been a circuit court judge in a Virginia town since age 32. He's the author of two 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, because -- as Clark informs us in a provocative first-person introduction and afterword -- the story is a roman à clef on an actual case that came to his attention when he was a judge in Stuart, Va. The result is a corkscrew riff on Cain and Abel told with a gritty specificity that reflects the spirit as well as the practice of criminal law.

A secret from the past

Gates and Mason are brothers in a small Virginia town, sons to a fond and patient mother, survivors of a sadistic and 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 on 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 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 moral ambiguities of the criminal courts.

Slips into psychobabble

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 fellow do the job."

As someone who has -- for reasons both professional and personal -- spent time around successful defense attorneys, this reader has heard variations on that sentiment 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 and a vigorous if somewhat wordy descriptive touch, particularly in 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 Mason worries that the bad brother Gates will indiscreetly reveal his guilt and his sibling's complicity:

"As it happened, Mason had no need to be concerned about Gates incriminating himself -- he was far too narcissistic and egotistical to do or say anything that might bring him hardship. He proved to have a rascal's capacity to write off his crime and a gift for absolute self-preservation that kept him from ever mentioning the killing, no matter how drunk or high he became."

How much more convincing to have begun that sequence with the paragraph's next sentence: "In early November, (Gates) found a job as a floor supervisor at a textile plant in Martinsville, and he announced to Denise he was cutting back to only beer and pot -- no more coke and hard liquor and three day binges. He lost the job after six weeks ... In the months after the firing, there were sporadic trips to church basements for AA meetings, a monstrous blowout with Denise that prompted her to call Mason, and hotheaded feuds with his mom followed by the usual fulsome apologies and vows to shape up."

It would be great if every novelist had been, at some point, exposed to the old newspaper feature editor's plain-spoken maxim: "Show, don't tell."

Fascinating legal insights

Still, these are points worth making only because Clark appears to be a writer on his way to things even more ambitious than this engrossingly realized novel. Apart from his writerly gifts, he has an unselfconscious appreciation of the physical and regional geography of the place where he's rooted and, beyond that, a mordant apprehension of an essential truth about his day job: What we call the criminal justice system is really about law and not about justice.

But while there is no perfect justice this side of the grave, our fallible courts with their all-too-human lawyers and judges are all on which we have to rely. In most instances, they produce a "good enough" justice -- or, at least, the only approximation of justice within our grasp.

When the system is freighted with overlapping and conflicting questions of loyalty, legality and morality, as it is in Clark's compelling narrative, things can become very messy and very uncertain indeed. Two thoughts occur: Law without compassion is an instrument of social surgery that cuts but does not heal. There is an ineffable wisdom in our reliance on due process.

The late attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. used to tell audiences that every single person in the room had a personal interest in supporting due process.

"Each and every one of us," Cochran used to say, "can guarantee that we'll never commit a crime. But nobody here can guarantee that they'll never be accused of one."

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