BOOK REVIEW: If Obama and Biden teamed up to solve a mystery …

December 31, 2018 GMT

First of all, there’s the cover art. Against a bright, red-orange background are Joe Biden at the wheel of a Dodge Charger, safety belt harnessing him in, while Barack Obama stands through the car’s sunroof with an absolute sense of urgency, pointing ahead while his tie flaps over his shoulder in a rush of wind.

Then there’s dialogue like “‘I’m going to find the truth about your father,’ I promised. ‘I’m giving you my word as a Biden.’”

Welcome to “Hope Never Dies,” Andrew Shaffer’s first Obama/Biden Mystery. (Yes, that Obama and that Biden.) Quickly get past making laid-back comments condemning the gimmickry of such a book. It’s not half bad.

Its mystery unfolds over a long weekend in Wilmington, Del. Joe Biden, no longer under the watchful, protective eye of the Secret Service, decides to take Champ, the family’s German shepherd, for a walk. Out of the nearest hedge emerges Barack Obama with news for his former associate that Finn Donnelly, an Amtrak conductor and friend of Biden, has been hit by a train and killed.

Was it suicide? (Donnelly had recently taken out a $1 million life insurance policy that at payout would care for his invalid wife, Darlene, and also allow his daughter Grace to finish college.) Was it murder? (A bag of heroin is found on Donnelly.) Was he put on the tracks as some sort of cover-up? (The victim had in his possession a map to the Biden home.)

And so, former VPOTUS, with an able assist from his former boss, once again has a purpose in his life as he once more pursues truth and justice.

The fun of the novel lies in its reconstruction of the previous political tag-team that occupied the oval office for eight years. Recapturing that relationship is one of the novel’s strengths. Obama seems almost laconic next to the impulsive “Uncle Joe.” Biden sums up the relationship succinctly: “His voice was cool, calm, collected. Vintage Barack Obama. Meanwhile I was panicked and blustering — vintage Joe Biden.” If that relationship is meant to be a “bromance,” it’s a sharply depicted one.

There are secondary characters who are equally well rendered and who are part of the energy of the book. There’s Steve, the Secret Service agent assigned to Obama, who is working to get a promotion despite the escapades of the former president. Then there’s that woman with the waist-length blond hair, pulled back in a ponytail swinging behind her. And there’s Jill Biden, who is awfully good at giving her husband just the right amount of space.

There’s also an occasional jab at recent Washington politics. Biden, for example, wickedly points out that the current administration’s agenda seems to be, “Do something every day to grab the headlines — something big, bold, and preferably stupid — thereby banishing the dull stories about how you were systematically dismantling the country to the back pages with the ‘Hagar’ comics.”

Utilizing language whose rhythms are reminiscent of the books of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Shaffer turns our former Vice President of the United States into a sort of contemporary Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe. And then Shaffer evokes Arthur Conan Doyle by introducing former President Barack Obama to serve as a contemporary Sherlock Holmes to Biden’s John Watson. As if that were not enough, there’s more than a smattering of the side-long humor of Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, “The Odd Couple” of playwright Neil Simon.

There’s a lot going on in “Hope Never Dies,” and the pay-off of this first Obama/Biden mystery isn’t quite as convincing as it might be. But getting into the fictional world — and especially the relationship — of two disaffected friends is very satisfying indeed. The novel never descends into cheap thrills or even cheaper laughs.

“Hope Never Dies,” published this summer, is a welcome find. “Hope Rides Again,” its sequel, is said to be awaiting publication during the summer of 2019. I, for one, can’t wait.

Steven Whitton is a retired Professor of English.