And Another Review of THE SWITCH

THE SWITCH
Joseph Finder
June 12, 2017
Dutton

Joseph Finder’s fourteenth novel starts simply enough: Michael Tanner – owner of a boutique coffee roaster in Boston – accidentally swaps computers with a US Senator from Illinois. The senator’s computer contains stolen top secret NSA files. Senator Robbins must retrieve the files in order to save her career and Presidential ambitions.

It’s a classic story: Tanner has stumbled onto a secret, and the reader expects him to be hunted by a ruthless killer. But fortunately the premise is not the book. Finder smartly positions Tanner against Will Abbott, Senator Robbins’s chief of staff. Making Abbott and Tanner alike creates a rarely used dynamic, and it keeps the story fresh. Both men fumble at times, and engage in awkward negotiations. Neither has any special powers, and are both supported and betrayed by their own limited abilities.

The natural playfulness in Finder’s writing can be deceiving. There’s depth to the interplay between the two men. We see them as they see themselves, which for Abbott means we’re rooting for him to end the standoff over the laptop with no major drama.

But then the NSA shows up, looking to protect its top secret surveillance project. Again Finder brings the stakes to life by making them personal. The struggle for the laptop’s recovery between the NSA and Senator Robbins is a battle over leverage. They’re not fighting over the right to privacy, so much as the right to have the upper hand in budget negotiations when the NSA comes before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

I’ve read two other Finder novels previously (HIGH CRIMES and VANISHED). As you would expect for a writer who contributes to The New York Times and is on the Council on Foreign Relations, Finder displays his knowledge of US institutions with ease and competence.

In THE SWITCH the NSA is the epitome of a deep state organization – one that provides stability in an unknown world. The faceless NSA agents who show up to kidnap Tanner are headed by a man named Earle. And the NSA program in question is basically a no-limit surveillance program. A matter to shrug off, if you were to listen to Earl’s justification:

…the kids, they’re the ones who really get it. They know we live our lives in public now. They’re always on Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat…They tell each other everything, they put everything online, they don’t think twice. They know there’s no such thing as privacy anymore…It’s the transparent society, and you know what? It’s not half bad. You wanna guess why crime’s been going down in New York City? You think everyone’s gotten nicer? The cops are better? Hell no – it’s cameras!

Surveillance is civility. You got nothin’ to hide, you got nothin’ to fear.

This passage comes past the half-way point in the book, and since Earle is the character most in control his argument is persuasive. If you believe Earl and the NSA here, we’re evolving into a hive mind of a society. Even if the technology discussed in THE SWITCH isn’t speculative at all (we know our laptop cameras can be activated remotely), the discussion of freely sacrificed privacy feels fresh.

The privacy speculation isn’t resolved in the book, nor is it presented as a plot point needing resolution. We get what we need here. We need to know happens with the computer, and with Tanner and Abbot. Finder’s a veteran of fourteen thrillers and he doesn’t fail to deliver on the necessities. And some of the best moments occur when he touches on US institutions and the high concept of surveillance and privacy. Those moments are what make THE SWITCH much more than a simple case of mixed-up laptops.

 

Gregory Rossi