The idea of the vice president becoming a detective occurred to author Andrew Shaffer during the Obama administration.
“I thought about it years ago when they were in office still, and it just didn’t work out because I only thought about using Joe Biden,” Shaffer said in a phone interview while on tour to support “Hope Never Dies.” “He’s such a Leslie Nielsen type character and that really only works on film. If you’re reading a mystery novel, you kind of want the character to solve the crime instead of completely bumble their way through it.”
But the Cedar Rapids native — whose varied and successful career has included quirky non-fiction titles (“Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love”), satires (“The Day of the Donald”), parodies (“50 Shames of Earl Grey”), and media property tie-ins (“How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters”) — returned to his mystery novel idea as a new administration moved into the White House.
“Once they were out of office, those bromance memes started to go around, and I think everybody saw them ... I told my agent that I wanted to do a cozy mystery starring the two of them. And I wanted to set it at the Iowa State Fair because I thought that would be a good place for a cozy mystery, especially one where you have the candidates coming through. I could throw in a lot of local humor. I thought this would be the easiest thing in the world to write.”
His agent pitched the idea to Quirk Books. The good news was that the publisher was amenable to the idea. The bad news was they didn’t like the Iowa setting.
“They were like, ‘Oh, well we were already thinking about doing just a Joe Biden detective story, but we like your idea better.’ So it was kind of this weird synergy where we both had this idea, and we had to figure out where the story was. And it was somewhere sort of in the middle. Immediately the idea about the Iowa State Fair got thrown out.”
The publisher thought the audience for a book set in Iowa was too limited.
“I was like, ‘No, you don’t understand how many people go to this thing every year. You’ve never been. This isn’t like the county fair. This is the Iowa State Fair.’ Apparently in Philadelphia, they have no idea what the Iowa State Fair is. The original title was going to be ‘Deep Fried Death on a Stick.’ I was like ‘You guys don’t see this?’ and they were like, ‘Well ... no.’ ”
So the setting was changed to Biden’s hometown of Wilmington, Del.
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“It centers around an Amtrak train, which Joe is well known for riding tens of thousands of miles on over the years while he was a senator.”
Shaffer casts Biden as the Watson to Barack Obama’s Holmes, and the two set out to uncover the truth about the death of a train conductor.
But the mystery is only part of the formula for “Hope Never Dies.”
“I had to put in a mystery that works as a mystery, but the narrative thrust of the book was as a romance novel, because it was a bromance … They start off not together; they’re antagonists at the beginning almost. And then as they have to work together on this case, they hash out their disagreement and their misunderstandings, and at the end, not to spoil it, but they’re best friends again.”
Shaffer’s wife is best-selling erotica/romance novelist Tiffany Reisz. It’s logical to assume she helped him flesh out the bromantic arc, but Shaffer said her aid generally comes in a different area.
“She usually helps me punch up the jokes,” he said. For example, Reisz came up with the book’s POTUS/SCOTUS/FLOTUS gag — a variation on the less-than-wholesome marry/screw/kill game. The joke, which Shaffer was afraid might have too much of an edge, pays off in an unexpected and funny way, and has proved to be a favorite moment in the book for both the author’s editor and a reporter from the New York Times — a fact he takes in stride.
Shaffer had a brief encounter with Biden when the former vice president’s book tour took him to Asheville, N.C. The author dressed in a T-shirt featuring a penguin eating ice cream. Everyone else in the meet and greet line was dressed as if they were going to prom. Shaffer was afraid he had badly miscalculated.
“But when I got up to talk to him, he took one look at my shirt and said, ‘Ice cream. That’s my favorite.’ He knew what each person wanted to hear from him. … You just can’t help but be drawn in by his charisma in person.”
Shaffer hasn’t met Obama, but jokes that he was disappointed that “Hope Never Dies” wasn’t on the reading list the 44th president recently posted to social media.
“I got snubbed,” Shaffer said with a laugh.
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Work has begun on the sequel, titled “Hope Rides Again” and due out next summer. The second installment moves the action to Obama’s turf: Chicago.
“I’m thinking it might be a little bit Die Hard-ish,” Shaffer said. “Chicago is a city built on architecture, and there are plenty of buildings to scale.”
He’s working through the inherent challenges of sequels.
“You don’t want to write the same story again, but people are like ‘We want the same story but different.’ Well, how do you do that?”
Even taking into account that these mystery novels feature the most famous of protagonists, Shaffer said this work feels different from much of what he has written.
“This book is the closest to something that has come fully formed from my brain that I’ve written — the closest to having an idea and then getting it to the page that I’ve ever been. It feels the most personal to me out of anything I’ve done so far.”
While here for a reading Sept. 23 at Next Page Books in Cedar Rapids, he’s likely to receive a warm welcome from friends, family and those who are happy to see Biden and Obama back together — even if they are playing amateur detective instead of returning to office.
• What: Andrew Shaffer will read from “Hope Never Dies”
• When: 1 p.m. Sept. 23
• Where: Next Page Books, Cedar Rapids
• Cost: Free