Cory Doctorow's Red Team Blues: a refreshingly hopeful finance thriller about cryptocurrency

Red Team Blues is the newest novel from Cory Doctorow, former co-editor of Boing Boing, and the first of the new trilogy centered on Martin Hench, a forensic accountant who's hacked together a scrappy lifestyle for himself by un-hacking financial crimes. It's also a remarkably accessible examination of the inherent criminality of international finance, but in a way that radiates with a surprising sense of optimism (yes really). The essential thrust of the story is that Marty is hired by an old friend of his, a Silicon Valley billionaire named Danny Lazer who tried to create a cryptocurrency that could be used for good, and only good. Non-spoiler alert: this doesn't go so well, which is why he needs Marty to recover the missing laptop with the keys to the blockchain. While the 67-year-old Marty leads a comfortable enough life, this job could make him wealthy enough for a very comfortable retirement. That is, if he's not killed first by any of the people who want the blockchain keys.

This being a financial crime technothriller, you as a reader are expecting something fishy from the start. And sure, you'll find plenty of shady behavior in this book! But the thing that makes Red Team Blues feel surprisingly subversive is that it's not a twist-after-twist, trust-no-one sort of thriller, with constantly shifting allegiances paid off by oligarchs and government officials. Instead, Doctorow deftly illustrates that sometimes, fundamentally good people can still find themselves wittingly acting as pawns for the labyrinthine schemes of global capitalism. From DHS agents to criminal lawyers, the cast of characters that Marty Hench encounters are mostly decent people, who have found a way to make their living by enabling the corruption that makes the world go 'round, such as violent international crime syndicates. What's that saying? There's no ethical consumption under capitalism?

Perhaps so. But Marty Hench still believes you can (and should) do the least worst damage along the way. Even as he learns the hard way that the mere act of existing while being extraordinarily wealthy leads to harrowing moral compromises.

Stylistically, Red Team Blues feels like a spiritual successor to Doctorow's Little Brother — but unlike a YA novel, awe-struck at the wonders of a young person's firsts in life, Red Team Blues is centered on a 67-year-old white dude gearing up for retirement. I find this aspect of the book to refreshingly subversive, too. Marty's old enough that he's learned to accept a lot of things as just the way things are. But he's also humble enough to realize that the way things are could and should be better, too. Sure, he's in late 60s, with plenty of experience and expertise to show for it. But Marty also demonstrates a capacity to learn and grow. Being a book about wealth and crime that's set in Silicon Valley, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising that Marty's adventures bring him in contact with some unhoused people living in San Francisco. Even then, Marty thinks he knows what to expect, but is open-minded enough to be humbled when he realizes just how little he can actually wrap his head around the experience and indignity of being unhoused. Marty might be good at tracing financial transactions, but he's also got a lot to learn about how actual economics work, and that becomes a running motif in the book, too.

That's not the only refreshing quality about Marty as a protagonist, either. Yes, he's an older white dude, riffing on the idea of being pulled back for "one last job." But he's no chiseled action hero, and has to use his aging brain to deal with the threats on his life. And his sexual and romantic entanglements largely revolve around women who are also around his age. I can't think of many other thriller novels that involve booty calls from sexagenarians.

So we have a financial thriller about crypto centered around an older guy who faces off against a bunch of people who are fundamentally decent despite the fact that their lives are rooted in the exploitations of capitalism (excluding the international crime syndicates at the center of it all. sort of). That might not sound like the most gripping, high-octane adventure — and yet, Red Team Blues is one of the books that you want to breeze through. I kept picking it up at bedtime, and then getting mad at myself when I realized it was after midnight again. It might sound strange to describe a book about a 67-year-old guy scouring financial spreadsheets as "unputdownable," but, well, Red Team Blues is damn near unputdownable.

You can find Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow at, or, yes, at Amazon (unless you want the audiobook)