Microsoft Office plays detective in new novel

In "Crush," a crime thriller by chiropractor-turned-author Alan Jacobson, Microsoft's Office suite plays a central role in helping track down a serial killer.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
3 min read

Like many who spend their days trapped inside a cubicle, Microsoft Office probably dreams of living a more exciting life. Perhaps, when it was just a beta, it thought maybe it would grow up to be a policeman.

Well, in "Crush," a new crime novel, the mundane piece of software gets its chance. Office, or at least one key Office document, ends up playing a central role in the pursuit of a serial killer.

Without giving away too much of the plot, it's fair to say that a certain PowerPoint file becomes a key piece of evidence, with a worker at Microsoft finding central clues within the document's metadata.

"Technology is such a part of my life," the book's author, Alan Jacobson, said in an interview. "It's part of the fabric of my life, so invariably it spills into my writing."

Alan Jacobson

Crush, which went on sale this week, is the follow-up to "The 7th Victim," another book where technology plays an important role. Both feature as the heroine Karen Vail, an FBI profiler who seems to have a knack for attracting murders.

Gadgetry infuses the pages of Crush. While Office has the starring role, a number of products make cameos, including Windows Live, Surface, Outlook and even RoundTable, which Microsoft handed off last year to Polycom. In fact, there were so many Microsoft products, I thought perhaps it was some sort of paid placement.

Jacobson assured me that he's just a fan of Microsoft, whose products he has used for the past 23 years, ever since switching from a Mac Plus to a PC when he opened his chiropractic practice. From then on, he said, he has purchased every version of Word and Office, along with many other of the company's products.

"I really appreciate what Microsoft does," Jacobson said. "They create incredibly complex software that is incredibly easy to use."

I pointed out that it is usually Apple, and not Microsoft, that earns that kind of praise. Jacobson said he is aware but puzzled by that fact. "I am surprised at the animosity that exists on the blogs (toward Microsoft). They write a lot of nasty things."

While nearly all the tech in the book is from Redmond, the main detective does spend lots of time on her BlackBerry (it seems Windows Mobile has a tough time getting market share in the fictional world too).

The Microsoft worker who helps Karen Vail is not a fictional character but rather Tomas Palmer, a real-life program manager in Microsoft's security unit. Jacobson met Palmer through an executive at Microsoft. In part to thank him for his technical assistance, Jacobson decided to have Palmer play a part in the book.

Jacobson Jeremy Bryan

Jacobson said it makes sense that his characters turn to technology for help.

"I think that way, so some of them think that way too," said Jacobson, who worked for years as a chiropractor before finding a new way to tingle spines.

Microsoft has several tools for real-life law enforcement, including COFEE (Computer Online Forensic Evidence Extractor), a USB key that can be used by cops to find information stored in the cache of a suspect's computer.

Jacobson said that he was introduced to a Microsoft executive during a Seattle stop on his last book tour.

"I asked if I could get a tour of the campus," Jacobson said. The executive agreed and Jacobson flew back to Seattle last December and got an in-depth look at some of the latest products Microsoft is working on.

"It was fascinating," he said. "I kept thinking Microsoft has such great technology and nobody knows about it."