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The Switch by Joseph Finder

Published by Dutton on June 13, 2017

The Switch is a fairly typical conspiracy novel, the kind where people do bad things to keep secrets a secret, either in the name of national security or job security. The plot follows the Hitchcock/Ludlum formula: Ordinary guy who stumbles upon a secret relies on resourcefulness and luck to stay a step ahead of the evil forces that want to capture or kill him. The evil forces our hero must elude include the NSA, a Senate staffer, private enforcers, the mob, and a Russian spy. The formula is reliable and Joseph Finder is a good storyteller who creates believable characters, but he can’t disguise the story’s familiarity.

Michael Tanner runs a company that distributes high-end coffee. His business is in trouble and his girlfriend left him. One his way home to Boston from an LA sales meeting, he inadvertently picks up the wrong laptop while going through airport security. The laptop belongs to a senator. Its contents, easily accessed via the password she wrote on a post-it affixed to the laptop, would be disastrous for the senator if they were made public. After all, she’s not supposed to have classified information on her personal laptop. The classified information is disastrous for the public, since it describes one of those ubiquitous government programs that lets the NSA spy on innocent Americans.

Tanner is searching the laptop for information about its owner when he finds top secret documents about the NSA project. He naturally discusses the information with a reporter who warns him that his life is in danger. Meanwhile, Will Abbott, the senator’s staffer, contacts various outside forces in an attempt to get the laptop back before taking the matter into his own hands. The NSA promptly learns that Tanner has the classified information, but doesn’t know how it got leaked. Will is therefore racing against the NSA to see who can recover the laptop first.

Some of The Switch is predictable, including the lecture about how we’ve sacrificed our privacy for convenience. True enough, but a common thriller theme. And yes, we live in a police state, at least when the police claim they are enforcing laws related to national security, and yes, we live in a post-truth era, but those lectures only have educational value for readers who live with their heads buried in the sand. Much of the rest of the story is also standard thriller fare, as Tanner tries to stay ahead of the various parties who want the information on the Senator’s laptop.

I give credit to Finder for resisting the urge to go over the top. The story seems plausible because Tanner never does anything that requires the skills of Jason Bourne. He doesn’t want to be a hero; he just wants to survive. He’s a believable character, as is Will, the other character who benefits from significant personality development. I'm not sure the ending is entirely plausible (in the real world, ordinary people who get caught passing classified information to reporters go to prison) but happy endings are also standard fare in conspiracy thrillers.

I like the coffee business angle to the story (financial thrillers are really Finder’s strength), but that’s a small component of a novel that doesn’t impart a new twist to an old plot. I can recommend The Switch because it moves quickly and it always held my interest, but I would have given it a stronger recommendation if Finder had found a way to surprise me.


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