(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Charles McCarry’s previous novel Second Sight (1991) was, according to the author, the final volume in his seven-novel series about the Christopher family and their exploits in spying.Shelley’s Heart, however, prominently features Zarah Christopher, introduced in the previous book in the series. While Shelley’s Heart deals less overtly with espionage than his earlier efforts, it offers similar elements of treachery and romance. Set in the near future, Shelley’s Heart, while continuing McCarry’s concern with terrorism and the alleged betrayal of American ideals and institutions by radical liberalism, concentrates primarily on the process of determining who may inhabit the White House. Despite awkwardly grinding some partisan axes, Shelley’s Heart is a well-written, enthralling entertainment, almost a right-wing version of Fletcher Knebel’s Seven Days in May (1962).

Bedford Forrest Lockwood’s first term as president of the United States is besmirched by terrorist attacks resulting from his apparently sanctioning the assassination of Ibn Awad, an oil sheik, to stop him from arming the Eye of Gaza, a terrorist group, with nuclear weapons. (The Lockwood-Mallory campaign and the killing of Awad are recounted in McCarry’s The Better Angels, 1979.) Lockwood’s second term is challenged on inaugural eve by allegations that his reelection has been stolen by altered results from several precincts in California, Michigan, and New York. The challenge comes from Franklin Mallory, his opponent and a previous holder of the office, who has proof that the election was stolen by Horace Hubbard, a former senior intelligence officer and half-brother of Julian Hubbard, Lockwood’s chief of staff.

Mallory wants Lockwood to take the oath of office, swear him in as vice president (as the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution allows), and resign in Mallory’s favor until Congress certifies his legal election. At a press conference to announce Mallory’s intention to challenge the election results, Susan Grant, his lover and chief of staff, is killed when she steps in front of him and is shot by a terrorist assassin, who escapes.

After Lockwood announces that he will abide by the decision of Congress after it investigates the election, Julian Hubbard begins planning to save the presidency. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has recently died, and Hubbard persuades Lockwood to nominate his friend Archimedes Hammett for the post as a means of slowing down the likely impeachment process. Hubbard and Hammett both belong to the Shelley Society, a secret organization founded by World War I veterans at Yale in 1919 and devoted “to make the world a better place, no matter by what methods.” The members follow the ideals of Percy Bysshe Shelley as expressed primarily in his political essays. McCarry’s novel takes its title from the actions of Shelley’s friend Edward John Trelawny, who, following the poet’s request, burned his body, only to reach into the fire to tear out the heart.

Hammett becomes suspicious of Zarah Christopher, Hubbard’s mysterious cousin, after she is drafted as go-between for Lockwood and Mallory and as it becomes clear that Mallory is romantically interested in her. Mallory asks Ross Macalaster, the only Washington journalist he can trust, to write the complete account of the events surrounding the contested election and the assassination of Grant. Mallory is convinced that a plot is under way to make Hammett president.

To prevent his impeachment, Lockwood hires Alfonso Olmedo C., the most famous trial attorney in America. Olmedo’s investigator, John L. S. McGraw, a former New York City police detective, employs electronic bulletin boards to track down Horace Hubbard in Chile. Lockwood’s situation is made more difficult by a tape recording of the president’s giving Jack Philandros, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, permission to kill Awad.

The situation is complicated even further when the vice president dies. Speaker of the House of Representatives R. Tucker Attenborough, Jr., decides to manipulate events to prevent Hammett from seizing the presidency. With the help of Sam Clark, the...

(The entire section is 1728 words.)