It’s not as far out of left field as you might think for Stacey Abrams — who lost a close election for Georgia governor in 2016 and who has since kept herself busy more or less saving democracy in the state since — to write a legal thriller. Abrams has written several nonfiction books about politics, most recently Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. And she has long had a not-so-secret secondary career as a writer of romances under the pen name Selena Montgomery. But While Justice Sleeps (2021) is her first attempt at combining the two genres, crafting a political thriller centered on the Supreme Court and cutting-edge medical research.
As thrillers go, While Justice Sleeps is pretty well paced. I can’t speak to the plausibility of the biotech aspect, but the idea of a coverup becoming worse than the original crime is a familiar one. I also can’t speak to the authenticity of the way that Wynn leaves clues for Avery disguised as chess commentary, but it didn’t seem outlandish. The main weakness for me was the writing. It’s certainly not unreadable, but the pedestrian and sometimes clunky prose and dialogue were not on a par with the brisk plotting or deft characterization.
I also appreciated the graceful way that Abrams populated her story with a diverse set of characters who inhabited their roles without calling undue attention to the specifics of their identity. It’s a fine example of the adage “Show, don’t tell.”
One of the best scenes in the book is a flashback to a conversation between Justice Wynn and his clerk, which in retrospect is laying the foundations for Avery to be able to follow the clues he will leave her to uncover the scandal surrounding the merger case. Once again, chess is the language through which Wynn communicates:
Political thrillers these days have a tough row to hoe. The outlandish plots that normally capture the imagination of the reading public can seem like small beer in the face of our extreme contemporary politics. I’m not convinced that Abrams has succeeded in overcoming that reality, but if nothing else, it is certainly a relief to read about a horrifying situation that isn’t true.