Book Review: While Justice Sleeps by Stacey Abrams
By Doreen SheridanMay 14, 2021
This highly-anticipated political thriller debut by one of the most well-known politicians in the country is a twisty puzzler reminiscent of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code and John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief. Avery Keene is the senior legal clerk for “hippie libertarian” Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn, a grouchy old man whose irascible attitude hides a sharp legal mind. As the novel opens, Justice Wynn is facing a dilemma. He is dying and in possession of secret knowledge that could bring down a government, but exposing it could ruin his own estranged son Jared. So he devises a complex plan that hinges on the intelligence and ingenuity of the unwitting Avery to ensure that justice is served.
The trouble is, neither Avery nor Jared have any idea what’s going on until they’re informed that Justice Wynn has slipped into a coma and that Avery, of all people, has been appointed his legal guardian, with the power of attorney over life and death (and career) decisions. This scandalizes Beltway society, which assumes a more intimate, and less professional, relationship between Avery and her boss. Worse, it throws the professional politicians into turmoil, as Justice Wynn would likely have been the deciding vote on an upcoming case that is very important, almost personally so, to President Brandon Stokes.
“What else can you tell me about the case?”
“That none of the normal ideologies held up. Justices were all over the place during the questioning. The core issue is the Exon-Florio Amendment. It’s supposed to balance national security interests against America’s interest in foreign investment.”
Warming to her topic, Avery leaned forward. “Nigel Cooper, the head of GenWorks, is claiming that the president does not have any valid national security concerns, but is simply being a protectionist in retaliation against India since they shut down his signature trade deal last year. India agrees with China on a few trade routes, and six months later, Stokes blocks the biggest tech deal in India’s history. Because of the national security angle, the case gets fast-tracked, and here we are.”
With the justice now in a coma, the court looks sure to be deadlocked. But Justice Wynn has other plans, which he reveals to Avery via cryptic clues sent in the trust of his nurse and his lawyer. As Avery partners up with Jared to investigate, she realizes she must dodge more than insistent politicians and nosy reporters, as people are murdered and she herself is put in mortal peril.
Luckily, Avery is the kind of plucky heroine who combines an eidetic memory with copious street smarts. More importantly, she understands game theory, a concept Justice Wynn pressed her on when he discovered her history of gambling and inquired as to whether she can tell the difference between want and need:
“I’ve got a lot of experience with need, sir. It’s not hard to tell them apart.”
He bent forward, lifting a Montblanc LeGrand that could feed a small family for a week. Balancing the pen in his palm, he pressed: “Others would disagree. Need and want look identical to most. What makes you better at seeing the difference? The nobility of poverty?”
“I’m not noble, Your Honor. Just practical.”
“Yes, sir. Gambling for want is a risk. I don’t believe in jeopardizing what I’ve got for a negligible chance at something better, not unless I can’t make what I’ve got work somehow.”
Avery is a compelling heroine who’s easy to root for as she gets sucked into Justice Wynn’s desperate political game, unearthing clues hidden in ciphers, historical allusions, and chess puzzles as she herself is hunted by malign elements determined to stop her. While Justice Sleeps is a fast-paced look into the American political and legal systems, positing interesting conundrums with a fascinating cast that bears little parallel to our current slate of lawmakers and executives but is no less realistic for it. Actual Washingtonians may not recognize the depictions of our fair city, and some of the Internet stuff will raise the eyebrows of the tech-savvy, but fans of Stacey Abrams and popular airport fiction likely won’t care as they devour the pages of this first novel published under her own name.