A Heartbeat Away by Michael Palmer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As Michael Palmer’s books rise in popularity, he raises the stakes higher and higher. His earlier books focused on doctors running afoul of conspiracies in their local hospital; now, his writing eye is fixed on terrorism and government conspiracies - with a medical twist, of course.
In A Heartbeat Away, the first physician we meet is the President of the United States. James Allaire is preparing to give the first State of the Union address of his second term. Among the issues he plans to focus on - in front of his assembled allies and enemies - is terrorism, most notably that of Genesis, which appears to be a home-grown left-wing cadre. As he makes his opening remarks, small explosions occur throughout the crowd. Genesis has planted a Level Four virus, WRX3883, around the congressional chamber, and everyone there has just been exposed to it.
The back cover of Heartbeat lists the presidential order of succession. This becomes relevant quite quickly. Everyone listed in that order was at the address except, ironically, the Secretary of Homeland Security. Palmer lets the reader know that at least one person in the line of succession must be away during such events because of revolting developments like this.
Allaire knows the virus is highly lethal; he discontinued the government's development of it after it was stolen. It acts like SARS with a side helping of Ebola is also contagious. He must control the panic in the Chamber - and seal the building. No one gets in, no one gets out. The scientist who headed the WRX3883 project is missing. Her subordinate, Griffin Rhodes, is in prison for stealing the virus.
Rhodes is the only chance they have. Allaire promises him a presidential pardon if he comes up with a cure. The secret lab has been reopened and his old lab assistant will be waiting for him. Rhodes demands a witness. He was framed for the theft and railroaded into prison. He doesn’t trust the president. Angela Fletcher, a reporter for the Washington Post, will follow Rhodes and make sure that no one changes ‘fact into fiction’. That, and every drama needs a love interest.
The newly freed Rhodes goes to work on finding a cure. Angela tries to locate the missing WRX3883 project head. Genesis, which has eyes and ears everywhere, targets the would-be saviors. Meanwhile, they’ve contacted the Speaker of the House and offered her the cure – and the Presidency – if she cooperates with their demands. It makes for a barrel of fun.
I like stories with a medical angle, and Palmer gives us a taste of the science involved, doing a good job of explaining the research and aspects of human biology without going into pages of jargon. Are there some five-dollar words in there? Yes, but you can speed-bump over the worst parts or fire up Google. Don’t worry, he gets back to the story quickly.
I also enjoyed the political backstabbing that began almost immediately. Palmer does not identify his office holders by party affiliation and does his best to avoid making them resemble their real-life counterparts. I couldn’t suppress a snicker, though, when the senior senator from my state ran afoul of the Secret Service. It was only fiction, after all…
I initially had problems ‘buying’ a group like Genesis: left-wing terrorists of this magnitude? I’m sure there are violent loons on the left; it’s their level of organization that bothers me. Genesis is not what it seems, though. I’ll leave it at that.
What I would have liked: a little more medicine. There are seven hundred infected patients, but we don’t see much of how WRX3883 affects them or what’s being done to help them. A scene where Doctor Allaire was treating a sick congressman would have been nice. He should have been berating himself the entire time, too. Presidents sometimes have to do vile things for the best interests of all, but he should have regrets.
Another problem: Allaire’s political enemies are too one-sided. They hate him – no surprise – but most villains see themselves as the heroes. They also have personal principles and agendas. Perhaps Palmer didn’t want to get into those because then we could ‘peg’ them politically, but at the very least they should have families and people they worry about. The Speaker’s actions at the end were too over-the-top for me. Perhaps, if Palmer had shown her being more affected by the illness, it would have helped.
Spoiler alert for my biggest complaint: the virus WRX3883 was being developed in the first place because it had a side effect that worked better than truth serum and also dissolved self-control. It would have made it damned hard for the Speaker to conceal what she’d done with the Vice President. The arguments that would have ensued when everyone began telling the truth could have also been damned interesting.
Overall, though, I found A Heartbeat Away to be a good read. It’s not my favorite of his works, but it has plenty of action and keeps you turning the page.
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