A politician publishing a novel is a bit like the lead singer of a rock band declaring that not only are they going to release a solo album but it is going to express their newfound interest in electronica. Expectations are low — or high depending on your appetite for other people’s failure. Still, for all the mean things you could say about Stacey Abrams’s new legal thriller While Justice Sleeps, you could say some kind things as well, the foremost being that it is not cynical.
This is not some kind of botched cash-in. (For that, look forward to my editors asking me to review Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming novel State of Terror.) Abrams loves to write. She has written several romance novels under a pen name and tells us in a charming author’s note that While Justice Sleeps developed over a ‘12-year journey’ that she ‘really enjoyed’. I believe her.
Nor could anyone claim that the book panders too much to liberal readers. What do I mean by ‘pandering’? Well, I would have bet good money that the book would contain a President Bonald Crump with Cheeto-colored skin and a penchant for being peed on by Russian prostitutes. I thought that he might be in league with the dark forces of the Alt-White and their well-groomed Nazi leader Richard Penser. I thought the heroine might be a charismatic Georgia Democrat called Lacey A. Brahms. No, this was unfair. While the book does contain an authoritarian president who says comical things like ‘none of the damned Democrats on Capitol Hill will be able to stop me’, it is not a form of post-Trump therapy.
In While Justice Sleeps, a cranky Supreme Court judge falls into a coma and leaves his idealistic young law clerk, Avery Keene, power of attorney. Keene discovers that the old man was investigating links between the US government and a biochemical company that was conducting terrible experiments on humans.
The prose is often bad. ‘Abruptly, the anxiety sharpened, its razor claws slicing through reason in his suddenly clouded thoughts.’ Why the ‘suddenly’? And if anxiety has rather than is the razor claws, how can it ‘sharpen’? As for the ‘abruptly…anxiety…suddenly’ sequence, well, the rhymes are as musical as Napalm Death on a bad day.
‘You proved to have a singular inability to grasp the concept of fidelity,’ a woman tells an ex-lover. ‘But a rehash of our wasted youth is not the point.’ Who talks like this? It sounds like a parody of a lawyer in a Civil War drama. ‘Yew have proved to have a singular inabilit-EH to grasp the concept of fidelit-EH.’
But this is a thriller. No one reads them for the gorgeous prose. They read them for the plots. Abrams is capable enough on this score. She constructs enough twists and turns, and different characters, to keep the action moving. She avoids the classic pitfalls of politicians’ novels, such as fictionalizing themselves or writing sex scenes.
There are still oddities. You can forgive excessively convenient plot points like Justice Howard Wynn’s estranged son turning out to be some sort of hacking whiz. You can forgive the eyebrow-raising central mystery if you are not a supporter of the Indian government. But it is harder to forgive our heroes suddenly behaving like complete buffoons. It is established that Avery Keene has a photographic memory. So, the reader is unsurprised when she discovers that the judge has left her a code to memorize:
‘She read the note he’d written on what was also known as magician’s flash paper. Scratched across the top were the words BURN UPON REVIEW. Below, a series of letters, numbers, and symbols marched across the page. She stared, committing the garbled text to memory, then, out of an abundance of caution, captured the image with her phone.’
Keene proceeds to burn the note. BUT WHY BOTHER IF YOU HAVE TAKEN A PHOTO WITH YOUR PHONE? At least if she had just kept the flash paper no one would have been able to hack into it. Come on, Avery. Jeez.
While Justice Sleeps provides an interesting insight into the liberal mind. The Democrats are split between what might be called the activist left and the procedural left — the former of which believe that Republican, and Democratic, sins are examples of the system functioning in accordance with its nature and the latter of which believe they represent its subversion. Abrams is firmly in the latter camp. If While Justice Sleeps is anything to go by, she believes lawmakers might be scheming, grasping, self-regarding morons but the law itself is a humane and honorable ideal. ‘He celebrated the nuance of law,’ Keene says of cantankerous old Justice Wynne, ‘its supple ability to cure impossible ailments.’
Keene is referenced, several times, as ‘just a law clerk’ but it is civil servants that Ms Abrams appears to believe are the beating heart of the American system: humble, virtuous men and women, checking and balancing as if their lives depend on it. Abrams is a lawyer, so she has a personal bias towards the legal class, but it suits the mood of her tribe. For Trump, of course, these were the forces of the Deep State, finding any excuse to strike down his policies. Liberals came to love lawyers for precisely that reason. It is not surprising that Working Title Television have swiftly bought the rights to an adaptation. It will give bourgeois Democrats a chance to celebrate their civic superheroes.
Yet, again, I ended up liking Abrams more than I had before I read the book. It was not my glass of rum but at least it was written with real enthusiasm and an eagerness to please. When many politicians no doubt spend their free time hunting endangered species and touring the world with multi-billionaire sex trafficker drinking buddies, you cannot hate someone for writing a book.