Book Review: “The Handler” by Jeffrey S. Stephens

The Handler, by Jeffrey S. Stephens, takes us into the shadowy, frightening world of international espionage and counterterrorism. It features the exploits of Nick Reagan, an undercover CIA agent and assassin who is not afraid to buck official orders to do what he thinks is right, both for his own sense of honor and his perceived mission to defend the United States from threats.

The book starts out with Reagan trying to ferret out information about a new, untraceable cell phone chip that’s allegedly being manufactured in China on orders from a reclusive Russian billionaire who now lives in Silicon Valley. His mission doesn’t go well, and he has to engineer a bloody, against-all-odds escape from a Chinese secret police interrogation site—but not before bedding a mysterious British blond.

Back in the US, Reagan’s grey-haired mentor and boss tells him to stay away from the Russian chipmaker, but Reagan pursues the matter, nonetheless. He’s worried, as anyone would be, about the deployment of these “Ghost Chips,” which render mobile devices invisible, but also capable of setting off explosives.

In the US, two young Muslim men complete their indoctrination as terrorists and are sent on a mission of death and mayhem by their handler, a mysterious man who runs the American network of a global terror organization. Reagan and his partner, agent Carol Gellos, aided by his lover, CIA analyst Erin David, partly foil the plot. Their intervention saves lives, but one of the suicide bombers still manages to kill and maim innocent people in New York City.

Meanwhile, three American scientists have been kidnapped in Pakistan. They’re interrogated by terrorists who want to know how to trigger the collapse of a large building using seismic shocks from a gas pipeline explosion. Reagan is deployed to find them, but warned not to get in the way of the State Department’s official efforts to negotiate their release. Warnings are for gutless pencil pushers, though, so Reagan proceeds to shoot the leading Emir of the region in the kneecaps and tortures him into giving up the goods.

The handler is preparing a much bigger act of terror, and Reagan and his team are starting to get a whiff of the magnitude of the project. Between the ghost chips and the American scientist abduction, something huge and horrible is in the works. Reagan has to figure it out before it’s too late.

To reveal more would get into spoiler territory. The book moves along at a brisk pace, with suspense and action at every turn. Reagan is a force to be reckoned with, whether it’s in enemy territory, CIA headquarters, elegant Manhattan bistros or the bedroom. If you enjoy spy thrillers, The Handler will be a lot of fun.

From the perspective of technology and policy, which is why a book like this is being reviewed in The Journal of Cyber Policy, Stephens offers an imaginative and disturbing warning. Device tracking is essential for police work and digital forensics. A chip of the kind proposed in the book would badly impair counterterrorism operations.

Similarly, Stephens’ portrayal of the handler and his network seems realistic. He appreciates something that not many commentators seem to get, which is that terrorism requires a substantial support system in target countries. These networks of people, in turn, leave digital trails, which advanced technologies like artificial intelligence can detect—if those responsible have the resources and suitable mindsets to pursue them. There are few (or no) true “lone wolves,” one might say.

My only issue with this book, which I admit may not be an issue for others, is its sometimes heavy-handed political messaging. A spy novel, by definition, must have a geopolitical point of view. However, reading The Handler at times feels like Fox News bingo, with terms like “Sharia law,” “open borders,” “Pledge of Allegiance,” “the current (Biden) administration” popping up with little too much gusto. Reagan (catch that name?) is also a man who is not afraid to go against orders and torture his targets when it suits his mission.

Overall, though, The Handler is a clever page turner that’s worth checking out.