A Heartbeat Away

by Michael Palmer

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 2011
Category: medical thriller; science thriller; political thriller

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (from author’s website):

A domestic terrorist organization has released a deadly, highly contagious virus into the Capitol during the President’s State of the Union address. The president, Dr. Jim Allaire, knows the virus well-–his administration was developing it before he abandoned the project. Allaire is forced to quarantine the Capitol and all 700 VIPs in it. Our government’s only hope is Griffin Rhodes, a virologist whom Allaire has been holding in solitary confinement in a federal prison for suspected terrorists.


A Heartbeat Away is 2011’s addition to author Michael Palmer’s long list of popular medical-themed thrillers. Unquestionably, this book’s greatest strength is the premise. In the morass of killer virus stories out there, this one stands out with a great setup: a biological warfare agent infects virtually every person of importance in the U.S. government during the State of the Union speech. The opening chapters fly by as this nightmare unfolds in the Capitol, and the reader gets acquainted with the President, a physician (I love that).

Unlike most medical thrillers, not a single scene is set in a hospital. And it isn’t simply a killer virus story. Political intrigue plays a major role in the plot, with rivals trying to exploit the leadership crisis. In particular, the Speaker of the House (a woman who ran against, and lost to, President Allaire) ruthlessly tries to undermine the President to advance her own political interests. Some political and social commentary goes with the territory, but it isn’t heavy-handed.

This is an engaging thriller that I enjoyed reading and I recommend to genre fans for its timely themes and not-too-obvious twists. The characters are typical of the genre—rather flat—but the president captured my fancy. He is charismatic yet imperfect, and is not portrayed in black-and-white terms either morally or politically.

A Heartbeat Away does suffer from some common diseases of thrillers. There are too many coincidences. Characters make risky decisions to “go it alone” and trust no one without entirely compelling reasons for doing so. The requisite romance is contrived.  I was left with a couple of specific questions. The apparent violation by the U.S. government of the Biological Weapons Convention (treaty) is not mentioned by anyone, including the President’s rival. The villain has no apparent backup plan in case the virus gets out. And what’s with the heroic escape through the ventilation system—wouldn’t the virus get out too?

I give this book four biohazard symbols out of five (a measure of the quantity and quality of scientific content). Palmer uses a reasonable amount of accurate science in his tale, but falls down technically with the cure his characters must invent. This is a universal problem in “killer virus” stories when the agent infects characters who must be saved. In real life, few viral infections are curable, and it’s impossible to whip up a miracle cure for a new virus in the short time frame of a thriller. (An author can avoid this dilemma by setting up a story in which the goal is to prevent release of the virus, or the virus infects an expendable group.) To his credit, Dr. Palmer keeps it real most of the time, with a believable quarantine and some interesting glances at animal and human experimentation.

In summary, a fun page-turner that will keep you reading late with a nice synthesis of science and political thrills.

Key words: Genesis; doomsday successor; feng shui; computer modeling; animal research; presidential succession; WRX3883; the Kitchen; interleukin 6; Ursula Ellis; Angie Fletcher; ebola; enhanced interrogation; Griffin Rhodes; biosafety level 4; Kalvesta Kansas

If you like this book, try: Cold Plague by Daniel Kalla, Final Theory by Mark Alpert, Isolation Ward by Josh Spanogle, The First Horseman by John Case, or The Lazarus Strain by Ken McClure

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