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Another fine mess

Reader fan critic teacher reader fan.

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The Legal Limit - Martin Fillmore Clark Hmmm. First, they're pitching this like it's a legal thriller, and at 150 pages in the other shoe, partner to the opening set-up of a crime, had yet to drop. So don't come in expecting Grisham (god forbid), or even a mystery, really. This is a novel about ethics and about characters, very densely-imagined people bound up in situations both realistic and (despite an odd framing device which posits this all as true history rejiggered by a little authorial imagining) either Biblical or Noir-deterministic in its central plot. (Maybe a little of both, Abel and Cain--old testament and James M.)

Second, that the plot didn't erupt much until page 150 was pure joy. I fell in love with the meandering observations, the every-alley-investigated plotting, the often fine and funny and moving prose. E.g.,

"Don Wiggington wore his soul on display--hooded eyes, fleshy oblong cheeks, a dash of gargoyle running through his wide nose and rubbery lips. His were the sluggishly corrupt features you'd expect to mark a Renaissance cardinal on the take, one robe pocket full of dispensations, the other stuffed with bribes and Medici kickbacks."

That's Clark's style in a nutshell--even a stray metaphor for a minor character worth a few lines. We follow two poor-white brothers with a demon of a father, one quickly turned ne'er-do-well then eventually transforming into another grim small-town back-country evil. The other breaks out, goes to law school, marries up, has a rich life, before finding himself back in his old haunts, and--eventually ('round page 150)--returned to grapple with the consequences of an event which binds him to this vicious brother (now in prison).

Third, once the plot kicked in, the book felt more labored, not so much the dynamics of the necessary narrative twists and tensions--no, Clark does a decent job with the noirish plot, when he cares about it, and it's worth caring about. No, there's something about character interaction and development that seems to get more labored, jockeying with agitation rather than agility between a casual (Southern-fried) humor and a portentous (Southern-fried) sense of a guilt-ridden history. If I had to point to one thing, it'd be the main character's partner in law office and in friendship. This guy, Custis, never rang true to me--or maybe it was just the interactions he had with his "best friend" (and our protagonist). In fact, it may be that not ringing true is kind of intentional... a factor of race, as this black man seeks to fit in with a vaguely racist context and a friend committed to heavy-handed ironic post-racism. Maybe.

Either way, this relationship is central to the second half, and it felt like a tire had blown out and been replaced with a donut, and the ride was far bumpier.

Still, I did enjoy it. The first half of the book had me leaning 4 stars, very entertained and engaged, and the second half fell down to okay (a worthy but less fully-appreciated 2 stars), so--we'll split the difference. I think it'd be an enjoyable read to many folks: fans of Southern fiction, character-driven mysteries, and/or novels of ethics. (But if this sort of thing sounds good, I might turn you toward Clark's first novel The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living or two great Southern novel/mysteries by Michael Malone, Time's Witness and Uncivil Seasons.)