Review of “A Heartbeat Away” by Michael Palmer

This suspense novel posits a domestic terror group calling itself Genesis that has been wreaking havoc on the country in small increments. Now it ups the ante by an attack in the U.S. Capitol building during President Jim Allaire’s second State of the Union Address. A lethal virus spray is released in The Chamber of the House of Representatives which, for this event, is host to 700 of most of the power brokers in the country. All of the normal line of successors to the president are there except the Designated Survivor (“the DS” – someone chosen on each state occasion to be in a different location than all the rest of the successors in the event of disaster).

The virus, WRX3883, viciously contagious and lethal within 2 weeks of exposure, was developed in secret by the U.S. after 9/11 to help combat terrorism. It proved to be too unstable, but even so, the project was kept alive until the theft of five canisters of the virus nine months previously by a presumed terrorist working in the lab. That presumed terrorist, Dr. Griffin Rhodes, was placed in a supermax federal penitentiary in Colorado without a trial.

Only President Allaire and a few others know the true danger of the aerosol, and he has everyone locked inside the Capitol so the contagion can’t be spread. He also arranges to have Dr. Rhodes brought from the prison to try to find a cure for the virus. Dr. Rhodes, who claims he was innocent of the theft, insists that Angie Fletcher, respected science reporter for The Washington Post, be with him as protection to document his work and behavior. Allaire agrees, and the story turns into a race between Rhodes for a cure, and all the forces aligned against him, including members of Genesis, who want their demands met; Ursula Ellis, the Evil Speaker of the House, who hates Allaire and doesn’t want him to succeed; the dying people inside the Capitol building; and time itself.

Discussion:

The Good:

This book definitely keeps you turning the pages.

No one is saved from death by dei ex machina.

The Bad:

Towards the end, the author tries to fill up the plot with twists – many twists, all at once, reminding this reader of the puzzle: I knew that she knew that you knew that they knew that you knew that I knew that we knew that I knew that. Did she know that you knew that I knew that you knew that I knew that you knew that? All the twisting seemed a little overboard to me: the level of pre-planning, coordination, and time to set it all up by a bunch of physically ill people seemed unrealistic.

I also found it a bit bizarre that President Allaire, who according to the story used to be an internist at the Cleveland Clinic, at one point asks Dr. Rhodes what an adjuvant is. I believe the author was trying to define it for the reader, but it didn’t make sense to me to have it be a question posed by a doctor. [Science fiction writers are often ridiculed for inserting the so-called “As you know, Bob” conversation into dialogue, but such a narrative device would have been appropriate in this case.]

The Worse:

President Allaire took not only the Presidential Oath of Office, in which he swore to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution, but he had also, in the past, taken the Hippocratic Oath, in which he would have sworn to do no harm, and not give lethal drugs to anyone. He didn’t seem too affected by either of those oaths. Nor does he seem familiar with Sun-tzu’s famous advice in The Art of War of “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.” Allaire acts as if he has not much political savvy, nor much interest in upholding the Constitution. His method of eliminating political enemies is, well, at the very least not politically correct, shall we say.

The Ugly:

The bad characters aren’t just bad: they’re Evil Incarnate. And one of them is even The Speaker of the House, Ursula Ellis. Another is her aide. Realistic? I don’t think so. There is no nuance whatsoever in them. I could see the Genesis hired guns being uniformly bad. I can see somewhat that the Genesis masterminds would also be horrific (but given who they turned out to be, I also don’t buy it). But a Speaker of the House, who furthermore came in second in the previous presidential run, as a total psychopath? A person who would have been vetted relentlessly by countless reporters? In the author’s only concession to realism, Ursula doesn’t once say “Bwa-ha-ha,” but it was certainly implied!

Evaluation: This book is definitely a “thriller” and I enjoyed the author’s writing when he wasn’t jumping the shark. Based on the “good” aspects of this book, I would definitely try another when in the mood for this genre.

Rating: 3/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2011

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12 Responses to Review of “A Heartbeat Away” by Michael Palmer

  1. Sandy says:

    Sounds like a 3 is generous. Not to be snarky or mean, but these books are literally a dime a dozen, with the authors throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the plot. They are usually a quick read, but ultimately forgettable. But I like how you reviewed it!

  2. the overly evil character, one just lacking a mustache to twirl, is a plot killer for me.

  3. Rural View says:

    Loved this review. Won’t read the book, you understand, but sure did enjoy the review. 🙂

  4. zibilee says:

    I also really liked this review, and am glad that you weren’t afraid to be honest about the things that didn’t really work. I don’t think I would read this one based on your review, but I do appreciate having read your insight!

  5. Julie P. says:

    Oh no — not jumping the shark. I used to read all of Palmer’s books. I was really hoping this one would be good.

    Great review!

  6. I’m probably going to pass on this particular book, but I sure loved reading your thoughts on it..what fun! 😀

  7. bermudaonion says:

    I’m disappointed to see this one isn’t better. I guess I’ll save it for when I’m in the mood for something mindless.

  8. Margot says:

    The plot sounds great to me and I would normally want to read a book like this. Sounds like the author didn’t deliver when he needed to.

  9. Wendy says:

    I liked your review, Jill. I just read this one too – and I found myself agreeing with the negatives you mention, BUT, that said, I don’t look for realism in these types of books. If they “thrill” and keep me turning the pages…I give them a thumbs up. I read them purely for entertainment and let my brain rest LOL!

  10. Jenners says:

    Your review just cracked me up. Thank you!

  11. Bailey says:

    Love this review! My favorite part has to be the “I knew that she knew…” bit. And the Evil Incarnate character. I, too, read this book and gave it 3/5 rating. I was looking for more, but I guess the thriller genre isn’t my thing.

  12. Ceri says:

    Wow, this sounds like an intense read. 😀 I also love the way you set out this review. As I’ve said before, I have no idea why I don’t read more thrillers. I’ve only read a handful and have loved every moment of them. I just don’t find myself picking them up to buy enough.

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