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 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.
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.