Is there anything Stacey Abrams can’t do?
Well known in Southern and Democratic political circles for years, Abrams entered the national spotlight in 2018 when she came within inches of becoming Georgia’s — and the nation’s — first Black woman governor. (She lost to Republican Brian Kemp, who at the time was serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, the position that oversees elections.) Abrams made news again in 2021, when she was widely seen as the mastermind who got out the vote to elect two Democratic senators in Georgia, a feat that seemed well-nigh impossible, perhaps to everyone but Abrams, a supremely well-prepared and brilliant political strategist.
All of this came after her decade in the Georgia state house, several of them as minority leader. Along the way, Abrams authored eight romance novels, writing under the pen name Selena Montgomery. She published two political books as herself, “Our Time Is Now” and “Lead From the Outside,” but had never used her own name in fiction until now, with “While Justice Sleeps,” a juicy political thriller set in a Washington beset by bureaucratic infighting, naked ambition, and shadowy secret deals.
The story begins simply: Howard Wynn, a Supreme Court justice, falls into a coma, leaving behind instructions that vest his guardianship and power of attorney in Avery Keene, one of his law clerks, rather than his estranged son or soon-to-be-divorced wife. Wynn, who has frequently served as the Court’s swing vote, is a cantankerous character, difficult to know or even understand, but Avery admires his sense of duty and fidelity to the Constitution. Their relationship has never strayed beyond the professional, though, and while Wynn’s decision is surprising to all involved, nobody is more shocked than Avery, a brilliant young attorney whose own personal life is a bit chaotic (owing in part to her drug-addicted mother).
As events unfurl, Abrams adds complications. Wynn, it turns out, had been suffering from an incurable neurological condition destined to be fatal; the illness is one among many that might be healed by new genetic research carried out by companies whose controversial merger is currently on the Court’s docket. Opposing the merger is the US president, a nasty bit of work under a veneer of folksy charm. (Under his administration, Abrams writes, “the common touch had supplanted common sense in droves.”) Meanwhile, the billionaire investors and scientists behind the merger will do nearly anything to keep it going, including engaging in some light espionage themselves.
As people close to the case begin dying, Avery teams up with Wynn’s son, a handsome rebel named Jared (nowhere is Abrams’s experience as a romance writer more evident than in their budding relationship); her roommate, a medical resident; and a harried young lawyer in charge of Wynn’s trust and estate work. Like the four young crime-solvers in “Scooby-Doo,” the gang find themselves in hot water a lot of the time, pursued by both bad guys and the FBI handler in charge of keeping them safe, but Abrams never lets us worry about them too much. Jared, it turns out, has superior hacking skills he learned in military intelligence. Avery, a polymath with an eidetic memory and powerful puzzle-solving instincts (like Wynn, she knows a lot about chess), ploughs ahead through dangerous situations, a brave and appealingly imperfect heroine.
Along with the roller-coaster plot, Abrams introduces elements of geopolitical what-ifs: What if a Supreme Court justice was rendered unable to serve and unable to resign, a situation not currently provided for under the Constitution? What if the same company now promising to cure illness at the genetic level once experimented with waging war using similar chromosomal manipulations? What if those experiments seemed a terrible precursor to genocide? What if the entire bureaucratic machinery of the US government were vulnerable to all manner of sabotage and trickery? What’s a good American to do when, as Abrams imagines at one point, a branch of Homeland Security has developed “the type of technology that would have made Bond’s Q envious and a bit intrigued”? And finally, how must we balance our duties to the abstractions of national values and to the needs of our loved ones?
The book is a page-turner, plot-driven in the extreme, and at times terribly entertaining. Abrams is smart about Washington (she describes one local aristocrat thusly: “Aware that her family ties to the White House faded with each president, she had made ingratiation her blood sport”) and often amusing about human nature (of one of the scientists, an Indian woman, she writes, “though she didn’t believe in any of the Hindu gods, she felt certain several conspired against her”). And she is clear-eyed about America, a country Avery describes as “greedy, brilliant, ambitious, and compassionate.”
“While Justice Sleeps” sets itself up nicely to be the first in a possible series — we can imagine Avery finding herself in other sticky situations, solving puzzles others can’t begin to tackle. Does it succeed as well on a literary scale? No, but that’s not what a book like this is for. Like watching an episode of “Scandal,” sipping wine, and snacking on popcorn along with its charismatic lead, Olivia Pope, “While Justice Sleeps” is meant to keep your brain pleasantly occupied, and at that mission, it succeeds brilliantly.
While Justice Sleeps
Doubleday, 384 pages, $28
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.