WHILE JUSTICE SLEEPS
By Stacey Abrams
One approaches a legal thriller rooted in high-stakes Washington politics with a certain trepidation — and a curiosity deepened, in this case, by Stacey Abrams’s chosen setting: the U.S. Supreme Court.
Questions proliferate. Will there be actual Republicans and Democrats? Will the politics feel authentic — as they did, for example, in Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic from the 1950s, “Advise and Consent”?
Will the justices — as in life — be divided by ideology as well as by their disparate and often quirky personas? Will the author truly try to represent the hermetic world of the court or, hardest of all, the secretive and often byzantine process through which it renders its decisions?
Much depends on her intentions. Does she pitch the book to the small and picky audience that truly knows the world she purports to portray, while trying to bring the less sophisticated along for the ride? Or, seeking to engage a mass audience more interested in entertainment than authenticity, will she use the high-concept setting for a purpose both less and more ambitious: selling books?
In this case, the interest in such choices is heightened by the identity of the author. Any observer of politics knows that Abrams is a charismatic and talented former state legislator and voting rights activist who is likely to run for governor of Georgia in 2022. One expects a book written by an ambitious practicing politician to be, well, politic.
It is therefore small surprise that explicitly partisan politics plays little role, and that Abrams stints on judicial ideology. Still, her enterprise impresses on several counts: that she is willing to risk the jaundiced eye of readers unsympathetic to her public career; that she has the stuff to assay fiction in a new and challenging genre; and that amid an exceedingly busy life she cares enough about the form to undertake the demanding business of turning an idea into a novel. So the only fair question is not what she might have written, but whether she succeeds on the terms she set herself.
At the outset, the customary conventions of legal thrillerdom require quickly immersing the reader in murky but momentous events — this is not, after all, “Madame Bovary.” In page after page of efficient and serviceable prose, Abrams creates an exceedingly convoluted but potentially intriguing landscape.
The seemingly misanthropic and possibly paranoid Associate Justice Howard Wynn insults the president of the United States to his face; bemoans the ravages of Boursin’s syndrome, an apparently degenerative brain disease that is sapping his mental acuity; inveighs against the capacity of humans to deploy scientific breakthroughs for dangerous ends; refers to himself as a threat to national security; harries a nurse who has been blackmailed into spying on him; designs chess-related clues to his investigation of undescribed matters in a case pending before the court; and sequesters them for one of his law clerks to decode — all before lapsing into a coma induced by what may be a suicide attempt. Whereupon the nurse, contrary to instructions from her unknown blackmailer, saves Wynn’s life by calling 911.
The protagonist, Wynn’s African-American law clerk, Avery Keene, is awakened by a call from her crack-addicted mother demanding cash to pay off her supplier. Avery, we perceive, is a self-sufficient loner: Her father is dead, her mother abusive and her credit cards maxed out from covering her mom’s latest stint in rehab. Nonetheless, Avery hastens to rescue her ungrateful parent.
In India, the head of a biotech company, Dr. Indira Srinivasan, broods over her own debilitating degenerative condition and, of more immediate concern, the fact that President Brandon Stokes opposes a merger between her company, Advar, and GenWorks — which, as it happens, is run by her former lover Nigel Cooper.
By the time Indira and Nigel end a tense but enigmatic telephone call, we know that Indira is harboring a secret concerning a lethal-sounding project called Tigris, which, somehow, involves President Stokes; that the merger is pending before the Supreme Court; that the outcome of the case will determine the viability of Advar and, it seems, much more; and that Wynn is perceived to be the swing vote. After hanging up, Nigel places a peremptory call to the majority leader of the Senate demanding a meeting with him and the speaker of the House.
All that’s missing, it seems, is a murder. Not to worry. By Page 27 the nurse’s mysterious blackmailer, an ostensible D.C. cop indignant at Wynn’s survival, has put a bullet through her brain. But not before she blurts out Avery’s name, putting the resolute 20-something in the cross hairs of a global conspiracy.
All this busyness breeds a fascination of its own — and yet more questions. Can all these prospective plotlines possibly be relevant? How in the world does Abrams propose to bring them all together? Will the narrative cohere, or collapse from sheer exhaustion?
Here Chekhov’s dictum leaps to mind: “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.” By that standard, Abrams must deploy a firing squad. But this much is clear: The author means to keep her characters and the reader exceedingly busy — and Avery in serious trouble.
As the story progresses, Abrams’s current deficits as a novelist become apparent. To say the least, “While Justice Sleeps” epitomizes the phrase “plot driven.”
Avery lacks a fully developed persona, and frequently reacts to alarming events in ways that are emotionally and logically implausible. Some of her most striking characteristics — she turns out to be a chess genius with an eidetic memory and a talent for breaking and entering — are functional rather than organic. Too often, she and her supporting cast are whomever the story requires them to be.
In consequence, many secondary characters are human signifiers — Justice Wynn’s unloving second wife is a cartoon trophy dragon, and the vultures of cable news make Tucker Carlson look like the quintessence of journalistic sobriety. Similarly, the dialogue quite frequently seems designed to convey information or personify attitude rather than approximate speech.
Concurrently, one is struck by Abrams’s considerable powers of invention. Not only does she succeed in keeping the pages turning, but the fusillade she triggers bespeaks a genuine gift for weaving a daunting number of plot threads into her labyrinthine but accelerating design. Her narrative never pauses for breath — let alone contemplation.
Neither, it seems, does Avery. Swiftly she plunges into a murderous maelstrom of potentially lethal presidential machinations; a lifesaving scientific breakthrough with an apocalyptic downside; several murders; and a relationship with Justice Wynn’s estranged son — all while striving to save herself and the justice and, in the bargain, the rule of law. Seems like enough.
Readers searching for dimensional characters whose inner lives inform a consistently credible narrative won’t find them in this book; its climactic events, and the behaviors of the principals, require a particularly willful suspension of disbelief. Nor do Abrams’s corridors of power exude a sense of real-life verisimilitude — they, too, exist to serve her humming machine. But those desirous of perils and surprises will encounter them in abundance. On that score, Abrams has realized what surely was her chief ambition — not to enlighten, but to entertain.