Book review: Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

Tech activist and sci-fi author Cory Doctorow turns to crime

Marty Hench is a 67-year-old forensic accountant specialising in unravelling the financial and technological structures people use to hide their money. In Red Team Blues, he agrees to take on one last job before he retires – for a tech billionaire whose crypto keys have been stolen. If the thieves can access his system, they will bring down not just his company but the security systems on which all the major tech companies rely.

The investigation escalates for Hench when he realises that he is treading on the toes of two criminal cartels and that his life is in danger. There is a way out for him if he’s prepared to compromise – but will he?

This is an entertaining tech thriller set in the world of cryptocurrency and financial fraud. It helps if you have a basic knowledge of crypto terminology (mine is limited to following a few tech-critical people on Twitter and listening to their podcasts, and that was enough). Doctorow talks you through the mechanics of Hench’s work without disrupting the flow of the narrative but ultimately all you really need to know is that the bad guys took something and Hench has to get it back.

It’s good to see a boomer (and an accountant!) as protagonist. Like all good private investigators in fiction, Hench has an unconventional and arguably aspirational lifestyle. He lives in a luxury tour bus and tows an electric car, and is successful enough that he can put off responding to a billionaire’s call while he enjoys a dinner date. (He also has a lot of intelligent, attractive women falling into bed with him which reminded me a bit of those 1970s cop dramas where the protagonist has a different love interest in every episode.)

Doctorow has an engaging writing style which keeps the pages turning. Don’t expect deep characterisation or dramatic plot twists – most of the action happens off the page. What Red Team Blues offers is a wealth of wry commentary and fascinating detail about Silicon Valley, and the murky world of tax avoidance and money laundering — from criminal gangs to the apparently respectable professionals who facilitate their crimes.

Particularly pointed are Hench’s observations on the extreme inequality of San Francisco, where billionaires step over rough sleepers. Hench does his own bit of redistribution (veering at times into sentimentality) but as he points out, even the wealthiest individual can’t solve what is a systemic problem.

I received a copy of Red Team Blues from the publisher via NetGalley.
View Red Team Blues on Goodreads

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