Stacey Abrams did not keep me up all night. Nor did she put me to sleep. On the other other hand, While Justice Sleeps, her first legal/political thriller and the first of her nine novels published under her own name, did keep me turning pages. That’s not nothing.
The trouble is, Abrams has accustomed us to extraordinary things. She was minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, where she served 11 years. She was the first African-American female gubernatorial candidate to be nominated by a major party. She is the author of two well-regarded non-fiction books, Lead From the Outside and Our Time Is Now. She created or helped create Fair Fight, Fair Count, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, organizations devoted to voting rights and social change. And most important, she inspired and spearheaded the drive to turn Georgia blue in the last election.
Perhaps the most relevant entries on her resume in this case, however, are the eight suspense romance novels she published years ago under a pseudonym. Eight! When does this woman ever sleep? But clearly in writing those books, she learned how to craft a story. While Justice Sleeps is not the literary equivalent of turning Georgia blue. It is not extraordinarily bad nor extraordinarily good. But it gets the job done. Like a John Grisham novel, it’ll get you through a long airplane ride or a rainy day at a beach house, and a week later about all you’ll remember is the title.
Its plot is preposterous: Avery Keene, a law clerk for a Supreme Court justice who’s in a coma, must decipher clues that her boss has left about a nefarious plot involving the weaponization of genetic research. And if that weren’t dire enough, the scheme ultimately involves none other than the Republican president, abetted by diabolical Homeland Security goons who murder anyone who crosses them.
Its characters are paper thin but conveniently they come equipped with precisely the tools necessary to foil the conspiracy: intrepid law clerk Avery Keene has a photographic memory. The justice’s son who becomes her ally and potential suitor knows all about the ins and outs of internet security. The villains, on the other hand, are accomplished and efficient… until they’re not. And, as The Washington Post pointed out, Abrams gets a good bit wrong in her descriptions of certain locations inside the District of Columbia.
In other words, Abrams wrote a typical political thriller, a genre where preposterous plots proliferate and paper-thin characters roam in herds. So give her a break. You don’t go to books like While Justice Sleeps looking for great literature, and you’re satisfied when it’s written with enough ingenuity and imagination to keep you reading to the end. Abrams does that handily. And for what it’s worth, while she loves adjectives and adverbs more than she should, she still writes better than Dan Brown and James Patterson put together. OK, there are occasional howler sentences, my favorite being, “She had to write down the thoughts writhing through her mind like scattered eels.” But sentences like that are the exceptions.
Ultimately, I was puzzled by While Justice Sleeps, because while I could put my finger on what was wrong with it, I couldn’t dope out why I found it so compulsively readable. Make no mistake, it’s a very professional job of writing. Any genre fiction has its own set of rules, as Abrams clearly learned while writing all those romance novels, and she plays by them here. But something more intangible, less prosaic, lights up this novel.
Robert Frost famously said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” In the acknowledgements section at the end of While Justice Sleeps, Abrams calls her book “a novel that I really had fun conceiving, writing, rewriting, and reading.” And there was the answer to my question: To paraphrase Frost, she had fun, so I had fun. That kind of fizzy, elated feeling is not easy to smuggle into a book, but Abrams did it, and she made the feeling contagious. Whatever its sins, While Justice Sleeps is never a slog.
Of course, because it’s Stacey Abrams, you expect it to be amazing, like nearly everything else she’s done. So, when it’s not War and Peace, it’s a bit of a letdown.
To be sure, when political figures write fiction—it’s a boutique genre but it is a genre—we tend to cut them some slack because of the wow factor: Bill Clinton collaborates with James Patterson? No kidding? Jimmy Carter wrote a novel about the American revolution? He did and it wasn’t bad—what is it with these Georgians? Hell, even Spiro Agnew wrote a novel—and inspired one of my all-time favorite headlines, courtesy of the Baltimore Sun: Local Man Writes Book. But the last American politician to write great literature was U.S. Grant, when he penned his memoirs, and even there people always whispered that he had help from his friend and publisher Mark Twain. No, the only bar we set for politicians who pen stories is that they can do it at all. And by that standard, Abrams is a star.
Not that anything I or any other reviewer says makes a lick of difference in this book’s fortunes. While Justice Sleeps is already the number one fiction title on The New York Times bestseller list, and Abrams just signed a new contract with her publisher for two more thrillers starring Avery Keene. Given her astonishing energy, she’ll probably knock both books out by Christmas.