Michael Palmer released a terrific medical thriller in 1982 called THE SISTERHOOD. He quickly emerged on the scene as a force to be reckoned with and a successor to other authors in the genre like Robin Cook. With the release of his fourth novel in 1991, EXTREME MEASURES, he became the pre-eminent writer of medical thrillers and began a long run of bestselling novels in this field.
"Palmer has become such a terrific writer of action and government intrigue..."
2010’s THE LAST SURGEON was a departure from Palmer’s standard form. While the story still involved a medical premise at its heart, the characters and action were on par with other thrillers that seem to regularly own the bestseller lists. His latest effort, A HEARTBEAT AWAY, now finds him firmly in new literary territory and easily comparable to works of current popular novelists like David Baldacci and Brad Thor.
The theme of this new work is terrifyingly plausible. During the President’s State of the Union address, a terrorist group calling themselves Genesis unleashes WRX3883 throughout the main assembly room, a deadly and highly contagious virus that seemingly has no antidote. It’s fast-acting, and those unfortunate people who were in the immediate “blast zone” will not have long to live as the rapid effects of this biological weapon make SARS look like the common cold.
President James Allaire immediately declares the entire building under quarantine and selects a small group of his most trusted advisors to accompany him to an underground chamber where they can attempt to come up with a plan to handle this disaster. The President is well aware of the threats that Genesis has posed against him and the U.S. government, and is even more familiar with WRX3883. He does not immediately let on about this knowledge to his advisors and concentrates more on containment. They decide to divide the exposed members of government into three groups, based on the severity level of their symptoms. Allaire’s personal physician lends a watchful eye to these selections while also carefully observing the President himself as the rapid effects of this virus will soon result in his inability to make decisions.
Not everyone is on board with the President’s quarantine plan or the fact that people are being herded into separate rooms while Allaire and his small band of advisors rest safely away from them. In particular, Speaker of the House Ursula Ellis is quite vocal in her opposition to the strategy. Ellis was Allaire’s opponent during the last Presidential election and wants nothing more than his seat in the White House. She spies an opportunity to do this as her role puts her third in line of succession for the Presidential seat, and she believes the President and Vice President to be in far worse condition than herself.
Meanwhile, Allaire’s knowledge of WRX3883 is based on the fact that he was behind its creation as a weapon to be used by the U.S. against potential enemies. The virologist most knowledgeable of this weapon is Dr. Griffin Rhodes, who unfortunately is currently in solitary confinement due to charges of terrorism against the United States. He allegedly attempted to take WRX3883 to Genesis, a charge he claims no knowledge of. The President orders Griffin’s immediate release and provides him whatever he needs to find an antidote to the virus. Griffin must race against the clock to do so, while battling the unknown members of Genesis, who are quite powerful and will stop at nothing to prevent his work from taking place.
Griffin calls upon a journalist colleague of his, Angela Fletcher, to find Dr. Chen, the original head of Project Veritas that resulted in the creation of WRX3883. At the same time, the only member of the Presidential Cabinet not at the State of the Union address --- Director of Homeland Security Douglas Rappaport --- is being sent to the lab where Griffin is working as he will be tasked with delivering the antidote if it’s made. Palmer keeps the reader guessing as subplots involving Rappaport allegedly being behind Genesis, as well as Ellis making a side deal with the group, create two different scenarios whereby the President may be supplanted as U.S. leader.
The novel drags slightly during the middle portion of the narrative, but this is only because Palmer has become such a terrific writer of action and government intrigue that the chapters involving the search for the creators of WRX3883 take a back seat to the tense action occurring inside the House of Representatives. A HEARTBEAT AWAY opens with a list of the 18 Cabinet positions in order of Presidential succession and poses a chilling reality that the leadership of our government is merely a heartbeat away from being passed down to the next member in line. This is an intense thrill ride of a novel that firmly places Michael Palmer with the best thriller writers working today and will keep readers guessing right up until the final pages.
Reviewed by Ray Palen on March 28, 2011