cover image Shelley's Heart

Shelley's Heart

Charles McCarry. Random House (NY), $23 (558pp) ISBN 978-0-679-41533-6

McCarry (The Tears of Autumn; The Better Angels) knows the world of intelligence and the insider's Washington cold, and it shows. Shelley's Heart is an intricate, skillfully spun novel about high-level political intrigue set in a recognizable near future. Liberal President Bedford Lockwood's reelection has been challenged by conservative Franklin Mallory, on the ground of computer tampering with the votes--and Lockwood has another liability: he once apparently gave the order for a terrorist Arab leader to be assassinated. With the aid of Archimedes Hammett, a radical lawyer not unlike William Kunstler, sinister forces of the far left (an unusual switch) are working on a plot of their own, which begins with making Hammett Chief Justice. Also on the scene is beautiful Zarah Christopher, the link with agent Paul Christopher (whose family saga is woven into all McCarry's novels, sometimes to rather bewildering effect) and a couple of ultrafeminists who seem to have strayed in from John Irving's Garp. Apart from what looks like a terrorist attempt on Mallory near the beginning of the book, and a climactic shootout, there is little physical action, but McCarry's uncanny grasp of Washington mores and methods keeps the long book humming along; in his hands, Senate hearings and backroom haggles become as taut as courtroom drama. He also has a flair for the creation of odd but convincing characters, like the House Speaker, an alcoholic lecher who is oddly heroic, and a bewildered upper-crust Yalie who becomes involved in intrigue simply because he is a member of a college secret society (the Shelleyans). It is an enjoyable, highly intelligent novel, but its coolness prevents it from being ultimately involving. 50,00 first printing. (June)