Hope Never Dies: An Obama Biden Mystery (Obama Biden Mysteries)
July 10, 2018
Do you like detective-style thrillers, featuring tag-team duos reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson? Are you also a political news junkie, who keeps CSPAN on for background noise while scrolling through memes featuring former President Barack Obama and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden hanging out, being friends, wearing shades? If so, please contact me: I think we could be great friends! Also, someone has written a book just for us!
Hope Never Dies, Andrew Shaffer’s detective thriller, starring Joe Biden and Barack Obama, is officially the oddest book I have ever had the pleasure of reading. A murder most foul hits the former Vice President right where it hurts. His friend, a railway engineer, has been found mangled on train tracks! Amtrak Joe (a real Biden nickname, from when he rode Amtrak to and from Washington DC as a senator for 30 years) isn’t buying the story he’s hearing about his late friend’s death, but he’s also smarting from the cold shoulder he’s getting from his former-BFF, Barack. Can Joe solve the mystery and reclaim his close friendship with his brother, the former President?
I have to say, it was weird to even write that thumbnail summary. Let’s start with the dodgy parts first: I have been a consumer of fan fiction for a very long time, and while I have a pretty high tolerance for the oddest of odd, Real Person Fiction has always been a step too far for me. At several points, while reading this book in public, I found myself physically cringing, imagining what the real Biden and heaven-forbid Obama might think of the words and actions being assigned to them. However, as often as I cringed, I laughed aloud at the sheer manic absurdity of this uber-partisan fantasy caper. There hasn’t been much to laugh at in the political sphere since 2016, so I welcomed this opportunity to read about the further adventures of the 2009-2016 White House Bromance.
I also can’t say this book is a masterpiece of fiction in terms of either plot or character development. There’s a lot of repetition, which is a personal peeve of mine. The dialogue can get clunky, and the secondary characters rarely spring off the page with compelling qualities. However, I certainly didn’t jump at the chance to read and review this book because I was looking for the next In Cold Blood. I am a decades-long aficionado of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, specifically, the 53 short stories and four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Given my personal political leanings, I couldn’t imagine how cool it would be to see Barack Obama take on a Holmesian-type role, because it seemed perfect: like the fictional Great Detective, Obama’s public persona seems to be cool, detached, highly intellectual, and concerned with social justice. I could also easily see how Biden could be the more emotional, more physical partner, who, like Watson, both reveres the brilliant puzzle-solver but also gives the reader an entry point into their respective worlds.
This high concept pitch sometimes works and sometimes wanders into dubious waters. The Biden of Hope Never Dies is a man obsessed with aging and frailty and is almost creepily obsessed with Obama. Sometimes this is hilarious (early in the novel, Biden becomes so frustrated with Obama’s post-presidency adventures with celebrities that he uses a picture of poor Bradley Cooper for darts practice). Sometimes, I found myself feeling a bit sad for Dr. Jill Biden, who in real life is quite accomplished and who has no use for my weird pity for her fictional self.
With some witty success, Shaffer lets Biden commit very real-life Biden-esque gaffes, like having borderline sexist thoughts about women and telling Obama that he’s cool, but not because he’s black, just so you know. There are also some odd moments where Obama deadpans about drones and GTMO, and my envelopment into the novel’s fantasy world broke as I thought about the disconcerting and problematic realities of some Obama-era issues. Still, I was impressed that the novel includes some relatively serious reflection on the challenges facing Wilmington and Delaware at large, and how the novel treats Amtrak as a transit institution that is practically a main character in its own right. I will also admit that, by the last few pages, I was almost skimming, because I was excited to find out the last couple of twists and how certain characters were going to get out of life-threatening situations. Clearly, my general expectation for a thriller was satisfied.
Overall, if you are someone who likes to imagine Biden and Obama getting into some implausible high-jinxes that allow them to perform acts of derring-do (I mean, at one point Obama comes to Biden’s rescue with a sawed-off shotgun, and I howled) while also reflecting cheekily on the state of America today (the current administration is referenced without naming names, but also with a gibe and a sneer), this is a low-stakes romp that left me rolling my eyes, but with a smile on my face.