Print Friendly, PDF & Email

By Paula L. Tutman

I spent ten action packed, suspense filled, claustrophobic days in about five hundred pages with Michael Palmer’s newest novel, A HEARTBEAT AWAY. In his 16th book he stirs up a toxic brew of a believable tale of intrigue about domestic terrorism, biological warfare and lust for power-with the seeming intrinsic understanding that our enemies don’t always come from faraway places or speak with accents-sometimes our most dangerous enemy looks like us, stands next to us, or is us.

Michael Palmer says he believes A HEARTBEAT AWAY is the most thrilling and tense novel he’s ever written. That’s saying a lot considering his body of work includes recent bestsellers, THE LAST SURGEON and EXTREME MEASURES, the latter of which was turned into fiscal nirvana by being made into a movie starring Hugh Grant, Gene Hackman and Sarah Jessica Parker.

In A HEARTBEAT AWAY, Palmer uses his pen like a scalpel, carving out and crafting a book that’s one part Manchurian Candidate, one part The Cassandra Crossing, one part Haliburton, one part Gordon Gekko and fully enthralling. These days he likes to sprinkle a little politics into his medical thrillers. “My last five novels have all had political as well as medical plot lines. Each of my books raises questions around a medical-ethical issue, in this case, animal experimentation,” Palmer says.

The tale begins with a State of the Union address by fictional President, James Allaire. Now, we all know how lethal Presidential speeches can be, only this one really is after a highly contagious and potentially deadly pathogen that’s been cleverly placed in the House Chambers is released, infecting all members of Congress, Senate-and the entire line of presidential succession-save one.

“The ‘designated successor’, also known as the ‘doomsday successor’ is the lone member of the ‘list’ who is sent away for the State of the Union Address,” Palmer explains. “Paul Rappaport, Secretary of Homeland Security is that man. He has been appointed by the president because his (Rappaport’s) daughter is severely depressed following a break-in at her apartment while she was in the shower. The true backstory is quite surprising.”

Interestingly enough the complexity of the plot started off unexpectedly simple, “Originally, I was thinking of just the vice president,” Palmer says. “But gradually the idea emerged to involve the whole list.”

Hundreds of people, including the President’s wife and child are present and placed on lockdown when the entire Capitol complex is quarantined. Alas, where are the tea partiers when you want them?

What unfolds is a ringside seat into the life and mind of a man who is at war. But the enemy is constantly shifting. In a ‘we used to be friends with Osama Bin Laden, too’ moment, the President realizes the deadly virus is one he’s familiar with since it was his own scientists who first developed WRX3883 and then scrapped the project-but not before madmen snatched a few vials to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting House Chamber. “The only person with any chance of coming up with a treatment is Griffin Rhodes,” notes Palmer. “[He’s] been in solitary confinement in a federal prison, put there without knowing the charge by Allaire, himself, who is convinced Rhodes is a terrorist. Rhodes appears to have been set up by his former boss at the lab, who has now disappeared. Reporter, Angie Fletcher, once Griff Rhodes’ lover has been assigned by the president to report on his activities.”

The President must now fight to contain 700 panicky people-where Self-preservation is steadily replacing civility-and find a way to get an anti-virus produced before all three branches of government start dropping like flies. But perhaps his next greatest challenge will be against an evil-minded Speaker of the House who has grand delusions that she should be President, not him.

Ooooooh, there are the tea partiers!

Palmer explains, “As with all my books, there are subplots. Speaker of the house, Ursula Ellis has decided to use the president’s vulnerability to seize the office for herself.”

By now there’s a new enemy in the search for an anti-virus-the human conscience. While the dying masses may be singing a chorus of ‘Shock The Monkey’, the only person who can come up with a serum has made a personal pledge that medical science can be achieved without torturing other living beings. “Working against death for 700, Griff and Angie, and Griff’s eccentric lab assistant Melvin Forbush descend into an underground Level 4 biocontainment lab to attempt the impossible without the aid of animal testing.”

And that’s where we meet Michael Palmer’s favorite character, the meticulously quirky, Melvin Forbush. “I loved writing about Melvin Forbush, who probably has Asperger Syndrome and is utterly obsessed with movies. Most of his creative ideas come from films-some of them help Griff and Angie solve major problems.”

Palmer continues, “I read five or six basic texts on my subject and then hit the internet, working tirelessly for many days, and printing out articles, which I will then read and reread. Often I will have my three sons help.”

If you’re one of those people who skips prologues-don’t! It pulls you into the story with an adrenalin rush and holds you for the remainder of book, whisking you to a place that will make you pray life won’t someday imitate art.

But there’s more to Michael Palmer than being the guy who can tie you in knots and leave you there for a few days.

How does he do it? How does he churn out book after, bestselling book? You don’t have to guess, he’ll tell you. Michael Palmer is a teacher. As an author, he would be that confident guy who brings his best looking buddies to the bar with him because he knows he’s the real deal. He would be the bride who dresses all the bridesmaids in white, too, because he’s not afraid to share a little of the attention. If you’re a writer visit his website: . He not only tells you how he does it, he tells you how you can do it, as well. His Tips For Writers section shows the map for writing success, basically putting the big ‘X’ on the treasure box.

Mr. Michael Palmer is that apex author who forgot to take his star pill before leaving the house that morning. I actually briefly met him at an International Thriller Writers book signing event and he never made me or the throngs of other new writers feel like we were in the presence of a great writer, he made us feel like we were in the presence of a pretty nice human being.

Father Michael Palmer is a dad who finds ways to mention his three sons and their contributions to his life. He’s a cat lover, who could likely face charges for ‘attempt to do great bodily harm’ to his houseplants.

Dr. Michael Palmer is a giver. Some of his most important work is as an associate director for the Massachusetts Medical Society physician health program. There he helps doctors struggling with physical ailments, mental illness, behavioral problems, and substance abuse.

And finally, thriller-writer, Michael Palmer is a tease who writes the kinds of books that won’t ever be used as anesthesia-books that will challenge you by dropping clues you’ll have to think long and hard about to solve. He says, “I have two goals in writing. First is to raise questions my readers might consider if they want to. Second, and more important, I want to transport readers away from their lives and into the world I have created. But I don’t want them to think that someone created it until they are done, and then I want them to sigh, sag into their recliner or wherever they are reading, and say, “Gosh, that was fun!” ”

The fun is only A HEARTBEAT AWAY, released February 15th by St. Martin’s Press. Tell your Valentine their gift is going to be a little late this year.

Paula Tutman