It could happen to any of us: accidentally grabbing the wrong laptop off the security conveyor belt at the airport. For the hero of Joseph Finder’s propulsive novel “The Switch,” this innocent mishap puts him in the middle of a dangerous scenario involving lies, leaks and threats to our liberties. Sound familiar?
Michael Tanner, the owner of a specialty coffee company in Boston, is on his way home from a business trip when he ends up with an unsecured laptop belonging to someone named S. Robbins. That’s Susan Robbins of Illinois, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The computer contains top-secret documents about an enhanced surveillance program that would make personal privacy a thing of the past. (Finder has said that Hillary Clinton’s private server problems inspired this story, as did WikiLeaks, Edward Snowden and the surveillance-saturated post-9/11 world.)
Tanner has every intention of returning the laptop, but when he gets a call from someone claiming to be “Sam” Robbins, the laptop’s owner, Tanner intuits there’s “something funky going on.” When a reporter that he turns to for advice turns up dead, Tanner has every reason to be paranoid.
Several of the characters here feel ripped from the headlines — or “House of Cards.” Robbins, for one, embodies every sleazy trait fairly or unfairly attributed to our elected representatives. She is more concerned for her own neck then the stolen documents. “If this guy . . . this Tanner fellow . . . got into my laptop and tells, you know, CNN what he found . . . well, it’s a shark in the water,” she types on her BlackBerry. It’s all her smarmy chief of staff, Will Abbott, needs to hear — he’s a lot like Frank Underwood’s creepy dogsbody Doug Stamper.
The dangerously ambitious Abbott, too, feeds the myth of the D.C. swamp monster. Preserving his felonious boss’s reputation is his life’s work. “She’d be the senator who stole classified information and put it on a laptop and lost it. She would be accused of mishandling classified information — what if the Russians got it? or the Chinese? — but worse, she’d be ridiculed. Her career would be over,” he worries. All this because Robbins was too lazy to read the documents in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) as required by law.
Abbott sends a mob-linked thug to Boston to retrieve the laptop, but Tanner’s lizard-sense kicks in and he does what he needs to survive. Soon, the National Security Agency is trying to locate the off-the-grid Tanner, as are the Russians who want to turn over the documents to WikiLeaks.
Finder’s innocent-man-on-the run tale is the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie. It sometimes feels over-the-top crazy, but it hits the mark regarding life in the 21st century. An attorney Tanner wants to hire reminds him that the United States is a surveillance state. “Don’t tell me you’re disillusioned now. This is the way it is. This is the way the world works now.”
Thriller writers face enormous challenges in our political climate. News stories about corruption, conspiracies and back channels rattle our nerves daily. How do writers top the shock and awe of the Comey hearings and the Russia scandal without challenging the reader’s suspension of disbelief? Or do readers prefer escapist fiction with no links to the real world?
Finder, whose books include “The Fixer” and “Killer Instinct,” strikes the right tone. By the end of “The Switch” we all buy into the premise that Michael Tanner embodies all of us, and everyone is being watched. If you feel the urge to place black tape over the camera lens on your computer, don’t fight it. I did that years ago.
Carol Memmott is a freelance writer living in Northern Virginia.
By Joseph Finder
Dutton. 370 pp. $28