Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Hail to the chiefs! Two reviews of presidential fiction

For decades, becoming president of the United States has inevitably doomed you to having to write a book. And to having them written about you. Mostly, these books were nonfiction – memoirs, biographies, political analyses. Sure, dead presidents are often popular in historical fiction. And first children Elliott Roosevelt and Margaret Truman wrote mysteries based on their White House experiences, although not until after the deaths of their respective presidential fathers.

But presidents who write fiction? And still-living presidents having fiction written about them – especially comic fiction?  Intrigued by this recent phenomenon, I devoured two such books – Hope Never Dies, featuring fictional versions of Barack Obama and his vice-president Joe Biden; and The President Is Missing, co-written by Bill Clinton and thriller veteran James Patterson. 
First up: The President Is Missing
Authors: Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Publishers: Little, Brown and Company, Alfred A. Knopf
Source: Purchase, Barnes & Noble
Grade: B
Most of the world believes the biggest problem facing U.S. President Jonathan Douglas is a pending impeachment hearing triggered by a botched CIA operation in North Africa in The President Is Missing, a release from the James Patterson thriller franchise co-written by former president Bill Clinton. Little do president Douglas’s fellow citizens realize that the still greater threat is a cyberattack so deadly the White House dares not acknowledge its existence, much less that the apparently-unstoppable attack will occur within days. Or that one of the president’s closest associates is working hand in hand with the cyberterrorists. Or that the president is further hampered by a return of a long-standing illness that may cause his death at any time.

Unable to smoke out the traitor within his own ranks, Douglas goes undercover for a secret meeting with rogue computer hackers who may be able to stop the cyberattack, code named Dark Ages. But it’s not easy to disappear when you’re the most recognizable person on the planet. Still less easy when your contact’s designated meeting place is the site of a major league ball game. 
And that’s even before Douglas realizes the terrorists have hired the world’s best assassin to take him out of action. From that opening, the action in The President Is Missing is nonstop as the cyber Armageddon countdown begins.
Patterson's modus operandi is choosing the subject and outlining his books, leaving co-writers to fill in the story, subject to his review. He definitely knows the basics of thrillerdom: world class stakes, tight timelines, ripped-from-the-headlines scenarios and spare-no-expense special effects. Even protagonist Douglas as a squeaky-clean, baggage-free hero is straight out of the how to write a best-selling thriller handbook, although I wondered how much of Douglas’s personality was an attempt to assuage co-writer Clinton’s qualms about the subject, given his own history of personal peccadillos. 
Less common in the genre, but a welcome change, is the supporting cast of women characters – good, bad, and shades in-between. Yes, The President Is Missing is occasionally preachy, the machinery sometimes creaks, and the huge cast also includes characters both predictable and paper-thin. Still, it’s a tightly-written thrill a minute entry in the newly-minted genre of presidential fiction.
Next up: Hope Never Dies
Author: Andrew Shaffer
Publisher: Quirk Books
Source: Purchase, Barnes & Noble
Grade A
If ever a book wore its heart on its sleeve, it’s Hope Never Dies, author Andrew Shaffer’s love letter to former president Barack Obama and his vice-president Joe Biden. Billed as an Obama Biden mystery, it’s sweet, small-scale and character-rich, a road trip of a cozy featuring a Holmes/Watsonish pairing of the chilled-out former POTUS and his veep that even those of multiple political persuasions can enjoy.

The book opens as Biden pines for the loss of the close personal relationship he once shared with Obama and envies the high life the former commander-in-chief has seemed to enjoy since leaving office. Into this rift, Obama steps at his most enigmatic, conveying a cryptic message: news of the death of Amtrak train conductor Finn Donnelly, a long-time friend of Biden’s. 
It seems like only one more grief to add to the veep’s store of them (and perhaps a stand-in for the actual death of Biden’s son). But the more Biden learns about the circumstances of the conductor’s death, the less likely it seems the official verdict of accident seems. 
Donnelly’s body was found on the tracks of the very Amtrak line he had worked on for years. How could he have been there accidentally? Or if Donnelly chose suicide as a way out of personal and financial problems, why would he place the burden of the death on a fellow Amtrak employee? And how can Biden reconcile the upstanding Donnelly he knew so long with the presence of opioids found on his body?
The deeper Biden digs, the worse things get in Hope Never Dies. And Obama’s attempts to help only make things worse. How much trouble can two guys who were once world leaders get into as they try their hands at solving a murder without their accustomed accoutrements of power? The answer is – plenty, some heart-tugging, some heart-stopping. And some, given the authorship of Shaffer, whose previous works include titles such as The Fifty Shames of Earl Grey and How to Survive a Sharknado, hilarious. 

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