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Opinion: The drama in Stacey Abrams' political thriller is unfolding off the page

Nicole HemmerNicole Hemmer
After a contentious, narrow loss, she devoted herself to turning Georgia blue. Abrams emerging as a national figure while focusing intently on the state, writing two bestselling books while batting off rumors that she would run for Senate or even president. In the 2020 election, not only did Georgia turn blue, but Democrats won both Senate seats against steep odds in a runoff election.
Given the remarkable drama of her own political rise, it might seem surprising that Abrams has turned to the world of political fiction (How could she possibly need more political drama, this time of her own making?). And yet, her new novel “While Justice Sleeps” — a complicated political thriller centered on the Supreme Court — ratchets the drama even higher: readers encounter conspiracy, corruption, assassinations, kidnapping and genocide.
Despite these high stakes, as a political thriller, it’s not the most compelling read. But within its highly fictional, and not terribly believable, plot, the novel holds — and ultimately reveals — something real and powerful about Abrams the politician.
The voters the GOP wants to silence The voters the GOP wants to silence
The novel revolves around a conspiracy at the intersection of a number of specialized fields of knowledge: biotech, national security, law and chess. Riddles and clues make their way to the protagonist, Avery Keene, through a scavenger hunt planned by the now-comatose Supreme Court Justice for whom she clerks. The Rube-Goldbergian plot hangs together, thanks to Abrams’s meticulous research, each step carefully planned to get the characters from Point A to Point B in as convoluted a way possible.
To say that the plot hangs together is not to say that it’s believable. The far-fetched conspiracy at the center (I won’t spoil it here, but let’s just say it involves genetic weapons, genocide and more hits than a season of “The Sopranos”) involves cartoonishly evil villains. And while, as many reviews have noted, Americans could not be more primed to believe in a sprawling international conspiracy coordinated from the White House, the portrayal of evil is flat, missing much of the weirdness that comes along with bad actors, particularly in politics.
So not the best novel. But there are insights into Abrams that emerge. She is far from the first politician to write political thrillers — it is a bit of a cottage industry, most epitomized by the thrillers Bill Clinton has written with bestselling author James Patterson — but in the majority of these, the main character is a thinly veiled version of the politician-turned-author, the novel serving as a mix of wish fulfillment and self-aggrandizement. “While Justice Sleeps” mostly avoids that trap. While Avery Keene is uncomplicatedly noble, she doesn’t come across as a barely fictionalized take on Abrams herself.
As significant: most politicians who try their hand at novels are men. There are exceptions — Hillary Clinton and Barbara Boxer, both of whom wrote with more established authors, as Bill Clinton did — but the gender barrier is real in the world of political thrillers. Abrams has talked about how her first efforts to sell a political thriller went nowhere, due at least in part to how unlikely an author she was. Not because she was a politician (she hadn’t launched her political career yet) but because she was a Black woman trying to break into a world dominated by White men — the same sort of barrier she would run into in politics as well.
The book’s carefully plotted intricacies also speak to Abrams’s gift as someone who understands how disparate fields and interests fit together. Deeply researched and meticulously constructed, the novel parallels her ability to piece together complex policy and understand — and explain — complex systems. Vann R. Newkirk II at the Atlantic, interviewing her about health care during the 2018 race, marveled at her wonkish command of policy. “She’s invested in the policy not just as a political matter but also with an expert’s interest,” he wrote. “For a moment during our conversation — a fleeting moment — I was grateful for the loans I’d taken out to get a degree in health policy.”
We saddled up to make sure Native Americans got to voteWe saddled up to make sure Native Americans got to vote
In her new novel, that policy-wonk mind overrides her storyteller’s heart, on display in her interviews about voting rights and her eight romance novels, published under the name Selena Montgomery. Those novels also tell us something about Abrams the politician: unable to sell her first manuscript as a thriller, she saw the market for romance, and set out to master that genre. She made a space for herself in a part of the publishing world more comfortable with women and women’s agency. Yet she still sought to open a space as a woman author of political thrillers, and seems on track to secure her spot in that genre as well; “While Justice Sleeps” is near the top of Amazon’s charts.
And then there is the low-level idealism that runs through the novel. Abrams’s characters tend to swap theses and plot points, rather than have conversations. And while that is a weakness in a novel, it does provide a window on her own idealism.
Her protagonist is a staunch defender of civil liberties, which she repeatedly reminds other characters, and has a soft spot for the US, despite its flaws. “America is a contradictory and precocious country,” she tells a Supreme Court Justice, defending her decision to study American history in college. Not that Reeve is entirely idealistic — she does (spoiler) punch the president in the nose — but her faith in the country, and in the idea if not the reality of its institutions, is a defining characteristic. As it is for the voting rights activist penning the novel.
It took more than a decade for Abrams to find a publisher for “While Justice Sleeps.” That persistence is important because she is in the midst of a real-life political thriller, one with its own perilously high stakes: democracy itself. As more states not only pass voter suppression laws but also empower legislators to undermine and overturn election results, her combination of idealism, pragmatism and persistence are precisely what the voting rights movement needs.
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