Shelley's Heart is a political thriller likely to appeal most to right-wing militiamen. It's a novel to indulge their darkest paranoias and to confirm their worst suspicions about the secret workings of the federal government. Newt Gingrich, too, would probably love this novel, since Charles McCarry (The Tears of Autumn) gives conservative Republicans all the virtues (industriousness, sex appeal, wealth) and reserves all the ugliest qualities for liberal Democrats. Well, fair enough it's no crime when a novelist takes sides. The problem with the book isn't its partisan politics, just its tangled storytelling.
Set somewhere shortly after the ''dawn of the twenty-first century,'' Shelley's Heart has the kind of inflated premise that practically guarantees a sale to the movies. The presidential election has been stolen by rigged computers, a fact that becomes known to the sore loser just days before his rival, President Lockwood, is to take the oath of office. Lockwood himself knew nothing about the theft, but when presented with the evidence, he refuses to step aside. When the legitimacy of his presidency is challenged, Lockwood resigns.
Actually, that's a great idea and, for the cyber age, a totally credible one. But what might've turned into a memorable courtroom drama instead turns into a lugubrious conspiracy tale featuring a cast of cartoonish characters who all belong to one of Yale's private clubs.
For all of its knotty plotting, McCarry's story is clumsy and formless. As an early entry in the vacation-novel sweepstakes, Shelley's Heart has about as much sizzle and dash as a congressional filibuster. C-