Forensic accountant in over his head in Doctorow’s techno-thriller
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For veteran science-fiction author Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, Radicalized), the digital age has provided fertile ground to examine a panoply of ideas ranging from the dangers of creeping government and corporate surveillance to the role of technology in organizing consumers and activists. Doctorow is an author well aware of the worst uses of technology as well as its unlimited potential.
Because of the subject matter, you would expect that Doctorow tends to tell stories about younger people, and this has generally been the case, with some of his most notable work occurring in the category of young adult fiction. Red Team Blues bucks that trend, however, in telling a contemporary techno-thriller tale starring a 67-year-old accountant named Martin Hench. And it’s a page-turner.
It can be easy to forget just how many decades we are into the digital age at this point — long enough, and then some, for someone to have spent a career on the cutting edge of digital finance and reached retirement age at the end of it. To be more specific, Doctorow’s white-haired hero has spent his long career specializing in digital forensic accounting, finding where tax cheats — including sometimes some very dangerous people — hide their money. As you can expect, in the course of this work it was inevitable he would eventually cross the wrong person.
So when Hench takes on a contract with a cryptocurrency billionaire to track down some stolen encryption keys with a value in the high nine figures, it’s no surprise that everyone from crooked tech bros to the Russian mafia have a stake in the outcome. The beleaguered spreadsheet sleuth quickly realizes he may be on his last case. The commission could allow him to retire comfortably, or he might experience a painful death.
As far as hapless hero setups go, Red Team Blues is narratively far less of a stretch than, say, a mild-mannered Harvard symbologist being pulled into a life-or-death conspiracy with the Catholic Church as per Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. The topic is also timely. The rise of cryptocurrency over the last decade and change was accompanied by a lot of grand promises, financial and ideological. Its proponents, if not outright villainous, have often been seen as amoral, good fodder for this kind of story, especially when their shenanigans have involved the movement of large quantities of shady funds that have sent ripples through world economies.
That’s all background, however. While the book is not entirely absent the social commentary fans have come to expect from this author, it naturally has to take a back seat to the relentless forward motion inherent to the thriller genre. Doctorow’s fiction already tended to be fast-paced, high-stakes and information-dense, so Red Team Blues doesn’t read that differently compared to his more explicitly sci-fi works. But it is more plot-focused than theme-focused, making it an engaging read but one less likely to linger in readers’ brains after they are done.
As a result, some fans, depending on the reasons they follow Doctorow’s work, may find this book less essential. Doctorow sets a high bar of writing compelling fiction while shining a light on impending societal risks that are not yet on most people’s radar (which has been a good reason to read his books soon after they release).
But Red Team Blues also serves as a nice palate cleanser between those heavier titles. Smartly researched but swiftly plotted, thriller fans should find it to be just what the doctor ordered as the weather finally warms up: a perfect beach read. The title is being marketed as the first in a series starring the same character — it’s one that is worth keeping an eye on.
Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.
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