The American political and justice system has provided the backdrop for classic books as diverse as Ross Thomas’s political thrillers, Robert Penn Warren’s All The King’s Men, Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as countless other suspense novels. In my mystery/thriller Corrupt Practices, attorney Parker Stern defends a client who’s charged with embezzling millions of dollars from a sinister church. Among the themes in the novel are the fairness of the justice system and the limits of religious freedom.
This brings me to the June 25, 2013 session of the Texas State Senate. As a native Californian, I haven’t paid much attention to Texas local politics. But I was among the 180,000 YouTube viewers riveted to a live stream of Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster of SB 5, a controversial anti-abortion bill. While the social and moral issues were, of course, paramount, I was also struck by how the whole proceeding unfolded with the type of suspense that you find in the best mysteries and thrillers.
Why was the debate so dramatic? Like a good work of fiction, the Davis filibuster provided for intense conflict. Sure, one reason is the substantive issue—mention the word abortion and there’s conflict. My own novel involves an unscrupulous and powerful Los Angeles cult, a concept that has generated a strong visceral response in some readers. But it isn’t just the overriding issue that makes for good suspense, either in fiction or in life. While other states have passed restrictive abortion laws, those debates didn’t capture a nation’s attention. What was different about Texas?
For one thing, the debate on SB 5 involved the classic mystery/thriller device of a “ticking clock”—literally. The bill’s proponents had to pass the legislation before the proverbial stroke of midnight. For them, every tiny delay compressed time. Conversely, because the bill’s supporters wanted to run out the clock, time slowed down for them. When time flows at anything other than a normal pace, there’s dramatic tension. This created what might be called mini-conflict. Each motion to end debate, each point of order, each parliamentary ruling, and each motion to table affected the end result.
There’s another reason why the Texas Senate debate was so compelling—Wendy Davis. That’s true whether you agree with her or not. She has a fascinating backstory—she began working at fourteen to help support her family, married young, became a teenage mother, divorced, and then improbably graduated from Harvard Law School. During the debate, she wore pick tennis shoes and a back brace. Her challenge in the filibuster was both physical and intellectual—stand and talk for fourteen hours, don’t lean on the desk, don’t take bathroom breaks, don’t get assistance, stay on point. She made an interesting, somewhat quirky protagonist. In that way, Davis shared characteristics of many mystery and thriller protagonists, who often face both physical and intellectual challenges in pursuit of their objective. Parker Stern in Corrupt Practices suffers from stage fright so severe that he becomes physically ill in court and so has to overcome physical, as well as intellectual, hurdles.
Like all good dramas, the Davis filibuster involved moral ambiguities about process and people. I’m not referring to whether the bill should’ve passed. I suspect that each side believes that there’s no moral ambiguity about that. But the debate raised other questions. Was this drama about the tyranny of the majority or an obstructionist minority? Was the protagonist brave and selfless or rather engaging in a publicity stunt to advance her political career? What about the audience members who ultimately delayed the bill past midnight with their cheering and shouting—were they idealistic supporters of human rights or an unruly mob thwarting the will of the majority?
In short, the Texas filibuster had all the trappings of a classic political thriller. And that’s why an ordinarily dry, technical political skirmish became high drama that unfolded before the entire nation.
Robert Rotstein is an entertainment attorney with over thirty years experience in the industry. He’s represented all of the major motion picture studios and many well-known writers, producers, directors, and musicians. He lives with his family in Los Angeles, California, where he is at work on the next Parker Stern novel. Corrupt Practices is currently available via bookpeople.com.