A Heartbeat Away by Michael Palmer

July 28, 2011

Plot summary (from the publisher): On the night of the State of the Union address, President James Allaire expects to give the speech of his career. But no one anticipates the terrifying turn of events that forces him to quarantine everyone in the Capitol building. A terrorist group calling itself “Genesis” has unleashed WRX3883, a deadly, highly contagious virus, into the building. No one fully knows the deadly effect of the germ except for the team responsible for its development—a team headed by Allaire, himself. The only one who might be able to help is virologist Griffin Rhodes, currently in solitary confinement in a maximum security federal prison for alleged terrorist acts, including the attempted theft of WRX3883 from the lab where he worked. Rhodes has no idea why he has been arrested, but when Allaire offers to free him in exchange for his help combating the virus, he reluctantly agrees to do what he can to support the government that has imprisoned him without apparent cause.

Meanwhile, every single person in line for presidential succession is trapped inside the Capitol—every person except one: the Director of Homeland Security, who is safely at home in Minnesota, having been selected as the “Designated Survivor” for this event. With enemies both named and unnamed closing in, and the security of the nation at stake, Griff must unravel the mysteries of WRX3883 without violating his pledge as a scientist to use no animal testing in his experiments…and time is running out.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • I thought Palmer had a great premise here. It was very 24-like, with every political leader in the whole country trapped inside the Capitol after being exposed to a deadly virus. I thought the setup had the makings of a terrific thriller.


  • The writing was just terrible. I thought for sure Michael Palmer was a first-timer who had just gotten his big break, so I was surprised to learn that he has a number of bestsellers to his name. The phrasing was amateurish, the text was littered with cliches, and there was practically zero character development at all. Honestly, I’ve seen ads for payday loans that were more compelling and interesting than anything found on these pages.
  • I couldn’t understand why Palmer elected not to discuss any worldwide reactions to the situation at the Capitol. Obviously, with some 800 of the most important politicians in the country, including the President, VP, all members of Congress, all Supreme Court justices, and every Cabinet member in line for presidential succession (save one), the press would be going wild and average citizens would be freaking out. But Palmer barely even mentioned what was happening out in the world, which definitely detracted from the gravity of the situation.
  • Speaking of gravity, I never felt the ticking bomb in this story. Yes, Palmer repeatedly said that the virus was deadly and exposed victims only had days to live, etc. etc. But he never ratcheted up the tension by showing the situation getting worse by the minute. He had, what, one laughable scene with people clawing at the Senate chamber door like zombies, but that was about it. We needed to see the President on his deathbed or something!
  • I hated the romantic subplot involving Griff and the reporter. What a coincidence that his ex-flame happened to be right there when he was being whisked in to the Capitol to assess the situation. How convenient that both of them were so adept at outsmarting a group of seasoned international terrorists. How sweet that they ended up together on a tropical island after Griff inevitably saved the world. Ugh, NOT.
  • WTF was up with all that crap about testing on animals?? I don’t support animal testing either, but this was so clearly a case of an author injecting his own personal beliefs into a story whether they fit or not that I couldn’t believe an editor didn’t flag all the references for revision or excision. It wasn’t just one or two mentions, which I guess might have been OK. It was page after page of lengthy diatribe-like, holier-than-thou lectures about the evil of animal testing. Gimme a break.
  • This book was way too long for the amount of “suspense” Palmer included. Griff’s search for a cure was dragged out interminably, with no real action or new developments to keep the plot moving along and to hold reader interest.

I had rather high hopes for A Heartbeat Away based on the early setup, but Palmer doesn’t develop the story to its potential. What should have been an exciting thrill ride was boring and plodding. The characters were dull too, and no one was worth rooting for. I give the book 1 star out of 5.

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