Is it mere coincidence or the beginning of a trend? First, former president Bill Clinton co-writes a potboiler (with some guy named James Patterson) about an embattled Democratic president with a kick-ass résumé (Army Ranger, POW, minor-league baseball player and loving single dad) who saves the United States from annihilation. Now, former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden have been reimagined as a dynamic detective duo in a thriller about the opioid epidemic called “Hope Never Dies,” by Andrew Shaffer. If, in the next year, Jimmy Carter surfaces as either the author or the star of a suspense novel, we’ll know we’re witnessing the emergence of a fad in which Democratic former presidents and vice presidents return to fix — in fiction — a world gone wrong.
For all its much-mocked faults (canned dialogue, eyelash-thin character development), “The President Is Missing,” the Clinton-Patterson confection, is a pure page-turner. Whoever staple-gunned that plot together knew just how to position red herrings, explosions, double-crosses and big reveals. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the drowsy plot of “Hope Never Dies.”
The opening premise here is that a veteran Amtrak conductor, whom Biden befriended during his long years in the Senate commuting between Delaware and Washington, is found dead on a deserted stretch of train track outside Wilmington. Given that a bag of heroin is found in the dead man’s pocket, police theorize that he passed out on the tracks, just another victim of drugs. But Biden can’t believe it. Bored with his post-vice-presidential afterlife of taking naps, grouting bathroom tile and waiting for his globe-trotting former BFFL, Barack, to call, Biden leaps at the opportunity to be useful. Soon, he’s racing around the hash houses and taverns of his beloved Wilmington, carrying out a cockeyed investigation into who drugged and dumped his old Amtrak conductor buddy on those tracks.
The hook here is that Biden doesn’t go it alone for long. Indeed, the murder simply serves as an excuse to reunite Joe and Barry in what turns out to be a wacky buddy story. The whole allure of “Hope Never Dies” is encapsulated in this paperback novel’s brilliant cover illustration: Joe grimacing in determination behind the wheel of his sports car, with Barack rising up beside him on the passenger side, tie flying, right arm pointing forward. That image all but shouts: “Yes We Can” . . . solve this crime! And, by extension, “Yes We Can” . . . set a rotten world right again! For some readers, that cover illustration alone — and the fantasy it conjures up — will be worth the price of this book.
As is fitting, Biden is the narrator: He’s a rattling Dr. Watson to Obama’s more inscrutable Holmes. Shaffer (whose author bio unabashedly identifies him as “the best-selling author of ‘Fifty Shames of Earl Grey’ and other malarkey”) does his best to generate Biden-isms aplenty to lend a smidgen of authenticity to Uncle Joe’s voice. Thus, at times of stress, Biden mutters, “Jumpin’ Jesus on a pogo stick” and “Son of a buttermilk biscuit . . . we got bamboozled.”
Some aspects of this novel strain too hard for zaniness. (It’s bromance overkill, for instance, when Barack and Joe are forced to share a double bed in a fleabag motel while they hide out from the bad guys and the Secret Service.) As is often the case with screwball comedy, the slighter episodes are the funniest. Here’s a chase scene in which Biden and Obama, along with the president’s lone Secret Service agent crouching in the back seat, speed down a country road, trying to overtake a motorcycle gang member who may be involved in the conductor’s murder. Biden, who’s driving, narrates:
“The motorcycle whipped around a midsized sedan with Vermont plates, and I did the same, keeping pace. As we passed the sedan, I caught a glimpse of a small tuft of white hair poking out above the bottom of the window. The driver’s head was so low, it was a miracle he could see. A pair of bony hands hung from the steering wheel like Halloween decorations.
“Everybody wave to Bernie,” I said.
“Nobody laughed at my joke.”
I did laugh, but if you didn’t, perhaps this romp, sweetly goofy as it is, isn’t for you. Word is that “Hope Never Dies” is just the first of a projected series of Obama-Biden mysteries. That may be a bit too much of this bromance even for those who think that the last administration was the stuff that dreams are made of.
Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.
By Andrew Shaffer
Quirk. 304pp. Paperback, $14.99