Originally Published 2018
Followed by Hope Rides Again
Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama team up in this high-stakes thriller that combines a mystery worthy of Watson and Holmes with the laugh-out-loud bromantic chemistry of Lethal Weapon’s Murtaugh and Riggs.
Vice President Joe Biden is fresh out of the Obama White House and feeling adrift when his favorite railroad conductor dies in a suspicious accident, leaving behind an ailing wife and a trail of clues. To unravel the mystery, “Amtrak Joe” re-teams with the only man he’s ever fully trusted: the 44th president of the United States. Together they’ll plumb the darkest corners of Delaware, traveling from cheap motels to biker bars and beyond, as they uncover the sinister forces advancing America’s opioid epidemic.
One of the things I have learned since starting this blog is that humor is entirely subjective. What may strike one reviewer as being restrained may seem like little more than juvenile slapstick comedy to others. Perhaps the only thing more personal than that is politics so no doubt I am on doubly sound ground here…
The premise of the novel is that Joe Biden is struggling to adjust to life after the Vice Presidency. His Secret Service protection ended shortly before the start of this novel and he enviously watches news reports about the celebrity friends Barack Obama is now hanging out with. He is surprised then when one evening the former President shows up in his garden smoking on a cigarette to tell him that his favorite Amtrack conductor is dead having apparently committed suicide on the train tracks.
The reason Obama is sharing this information with him is that a map to Joe’s house was found among his personal possessions leading law enforcement to be concerned that he may be in danger. Joe cannot see the man as a potential assassin but then he struggles to believe that anyone who worked on the trains would commit suicide by lying down in front of one knowing how it would affect the driver.
Hope Never Dies affectionately riffs on Biden’s public persona as an everyman and Obama’s as being somewhat aloof and professorial. Generally speaking it avoids being too political, reflecting on the nature of the men’s political legacies rather than savaging their successors. There’s a bit of stuff about Hillary’s run but it is mostly from the perspective of Joe feeling that had he been the candidate he would have wound up in the White House and beyond a throwaway gag about the Russia investigation the Republican side of things isn’t touched on at all.
For what it’s worth I found Hope Never Dies to be more chucklesome than hilarious. There is nothing new in the way either man is portrayed or anything subversive or out there. I suspect that Republican readers may roll their eyes at moments but they will not find much to object to while Democrats will likely be pleased that it has fun with both men without ridiculing them other than a few jokes about Biden and Obama aging in office.
The best way of judging whether this will work for you is just to start reading an excerpt. The opening two chapters are very short, set up the mystery and basically sum up the book’s approach to each man.
As important as the comedic elements are to this novel, I think it is easier to assess this book as a piece of mystery fiction.
Shaffer’s novel touches on several different sub-genres of mystery fiction resembling at times the modern cozy with its focus on interpersonal relationships, the adventure novel and even the gentle thriller. It blends these elements to tell an incident-driven story in which Joe is interviewing people and reacting to the things he is observing and the actions of others. There are even a couple of pretty solid action sequences.
It is not, however, a work of fair-play detective fiction. For one thing, there is not much of a focus on identifying suspects, working out alibis or assessing motives. For another, some important information is withheld from the reader until very late in the novel. Neither of these things affected my enjoyment of the novel as the action drives the story very effectively but those hoping for deduction may be a little disappointed.
The case does touch on some themes that do feel very much of the moment including rising levels of opiates use in America amongst groups that would not have traditionally been labelled as at-risk and the expense of medical care and the devastation unexpected bills can have on personal finances. These issues are not addressed from a party political standpoint (after all, the opiates epidemic was discussed by politicians of both parties in the 2016 campaign, particularly in the New Hampshire primary) but rather they serve as background in understanding the events that take place.
I felt that the solution to what had happened was fine and I did enjoy the action sequence that followed the reveal of the killer’s identity. The moment of revelation itself however felt anticlimactic and a little drab given how colorful the story had been up until that point.
What did work for me was the rendering of Joe as a sleuth, using his knowledge of his home state and contacts he had built up over decades working as a Senator to follow-up on leads. He approaches the case with heart, occasionally bordering on schmaltz, and also with a genuine interest in connecting with people. He does not possess many technical abilities beyond a few things he has noticed in episodes of Law and Order but the case does not require much of him other than that knowledge of people. This is a similar model to that found in Peter Lovesey’s Bertie Prince of Wales stories (although Joe is far more self-aware than Bertie) and I think it works well.
His angst about whether Barack still has time for him is perhaps stretched out a little too much throughout the novel but that relationship is interesting, as is the thematic discussion of when it is time to take a step back. That discussion reminded me a little of a book I recently read and reviewed, Murder for Lunch, as Reuben Frost also feels a little lost now that his professional career is over and he is looking for a sense of purpose. I do feel that this is one of the most successful aspects of the novel and it helps make it easy to relate to a former Vice President.
While I may not have laughed quite as much as I hoped, I did find Hope Never Dies to be a fun and entertaining read. It works as a pastiche of the buddy cop relationship and while it does feel a little odd to read fictionalized renderings of living figures, I think Shaffer captures their public personas fairly well. I am not entirely sure that it could work as a long-term series unless further elements were added to the mix but should a sequel appear I would probably check it out.