“Red Team Blues,” the latest novel by the prolific Cory Doctorow, is a gripping technothriller about billion-dollar cryptocurrency crime. I don’t often encounter fiction that pulls me in as hard as “Red Team Blues” anymore—I’m a jaded reader. But “Red Team Blues” kept me up well past my bedtime on more than one night, and I staggered around bleary-eyed at work the next day. I should send Cory a bill.

“Red Team Blues” is a departure for Cory. His fiction is mostly near-future science fiction. “Red Team Blues” is an old-fashioned private-eye novel crossed with a technothriller.

Also, Cory’s biggest novels are mostly about people in their teens and 20s coming of age. The hero of “Red Team Blues,” Marty Hench, is an old man. He’s 67 years old, a private investigator doing one last gig before retiring.

Marty is a big reason why “Red Team Blues” is compelling. He’s the first-person narrator of the book, and he speaks to the reader like an old friend, telling his story over fine scotch in a comfortable dive bar.

Marty is a callback to the classic detectives of the mid-20th Century. Like his antecedents, Marty Hench is a lone wolf. He has no wife and no family, though he has many friends. And he likes it that way.

Marty’s home is a luxury tour bus, called the Unsalted Hash, which he accepted as payment from a former client, an aging rock star. Marty drives his home wherever work or his fancy takes him.

One more thing about Marty: He’s an accountant. A forensic accountant to be precise. He investigates financial crime. And there’s plenty of that in Silicon Valley, where Marty often parks his bus.

At the beginning of “Red Team Blues,” Marty is called on by an old friend, who became a billionaire late in life after decades of pursuing a passion for fundamental crypto technology. An important secret relating to that technology has been stolen. It’s worth billions of dollars and could be used to sabotage global financial empires. Marty is hired to recover the secret—discreetly.

Marty does the job, but in so doing he gets on the wrong side of wealthy financiers who operate at a rarified multi-billionaire level where there’s no significant difference between legitimate business and criminal cartels. The financiers have already tortured a few people to death to get at the valuable crypto secret—and now they’re after Marty.

Through the course of “Red Team Blues,” Marty takes us on a tour of present-day Silicon Valley, where the early idealistic dreams of using technology to transform the world and make it better have given way to sheer greed. Marty moves from the luxury high-rises of the super-wealthy to homeless encampments just a short way away.

The setting of “Red Team Blues” reminds me of the 1930s Los Angeles of classic noir yarns, such as the novels of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, as well as the movie “Chinatown.” The LA of those stories is still new, but already corrupt and foul under the glittering surface. The Silicon Valley of “Red Team Blues” is like that.

Cory writes about the similarities and differences between “Red Team Blues” and classic noir detectives in this essay: Silicon Valley Noir

Aging is another theme of “Red Team Blues.” Marty Hench and the people he interacts with are mostly in their late 60s and 70s. They’ve been wildly successful professionally, but their careers are closing. They’re thinking about their legacy, and what they’re going to do next.

Marty is physically fit, but at 67 he’s not going to win any brawls or firefights—not when he’s up against pros, anyway. He thwarts the villains with his wits, not his fists or guns.

Like the heroes of classic detective stories, Marty attracts the ladies. He likes beautiful, intelligent women and they like him back. But here’s a thing that I like about “Red Team Blues:” The relationships are age-appropriate.

In detective stories about aging heroes, the heroes are often men in late middle age, and the women are at least 30 years younger. I find that kind of thing uncomfortable reading, because the writers are themselves often aging men, like their heroes. Reading those books can feel like the writers are sharing their own fetishes and insecurities in ways I would just as soon not be privy to. In “Red Team Blues,” Marty becomes involved with several beautiful, sexy women, and all but one of them are his age.

Additionally, Marty exhibits a refractory period that would be admirable in a man 20 years younger.

One of Cory’s great talents as a fiction writer is that he mixes compelling characterization with social issues. His “Little Brother” novels are about surveillance run amok. “Walkaway” and “Pirate Cinema” are about capitalism turned predatory. Like those novels, “Red Team Blues” is about social justice, but Cory never loses sight of the characters and the readers‘ need to care about the characters as people.

“Red Team Blues” is the first novel of a series. Chronologically, the series is unusual, in that each novel takes place before the previous novel. In “Red Team Blues,” we’re introduced to Marty at the end of his career; in follow-up novels in the pipeline, we’ll meet Marty at the midpoint of his career, and then at the very beginning, when both Marty and Silicon Valley are young.

And now for a brief tangent

Novelists who write series about the same characters over a course of decades have to decide what to do about the aging process.

Arthur Conan Doyle wrote over the course of decades about Holmes and Watson, and aged them more or less in real time. They are young men in their first adventure and old men in their last. Michael Chabon’s “The Final Solution” picks up Holmes’ life as a centenarian, with England on the verge of World War II; because of copyright, Chabon’s detective hero is never named, but he’s a retired detective, once famous, who now lives in the countryside and keeps bees.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin’s ages remain unchanged throughout the series. Nero is 52 and Archie is early 30s. In the first book, “Fer-de-Lance,” published 1934, they’re celebrating the end of Prohibition. In the final novel, “A Family Affair,” published 1975, Nero Wolfe, still 56 years old, is obsessed with the Watergate scandal.

In the first Robert B. Parker Spenser novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” published 1973, the detective gives his age as 37. He’s a Korean War veteran, an ex-cop who boxed professionally as a young man, and once fought Jersey Joe Wollcott. Spenser ages throughout the series, but slower than real-time; a fan developed a complex, tongue-in-cheek formula for determining Spenser’s age in any of the novels, and determines that in the 2006 “Dream Girl,” Spenser is 49-1/2, aging at a rate of slightly less than 1 year for every two that pass in the real universe. But Spenser’s aging isn’t linear; in some of the middle novels he talks about needing glasses to read and being less tolerant of coffee, and then Parker gives that up. Parker died in 2010, but Spenser lives on, in a series of novels written by Ace Atkins. (I’ve read a few—they’re good.)

And of course “MASH” was on the air for 11 years, while the Korean War lasted only three. The characters aged with the show. They had to; back then there was no CGI magic to make the actors appear younger.

I’m not aware of any series that runs backward in time, like the Marty Hench novels. So Cory scores a first there.


Those of you who follow me here regularly know I’m a huge fan of Cory’s work; I link to him here often, sometimes once or twice a day. He’s also an old friend. But despite my flagrant conflict of interest, you can trust this review. If I didn’t like this book, I just wouldn’t say anything about it.

This is not a courtesy I extend solely to friends. I don’t like giving negative reviews of creative work anymore. Even if a book or movie is a stinker, a lot of people worked hard on it. Let somebody else do the job of steering you away from bad work; I’d rather shine a light on work you might enjoy.

Also, I’m fortunate enough to be friends with a few successful science fiction and fantasy writers, and I’ve found that how I feel about them personally has no bearing on how I feel about their work. I can like a writer just fine as a person, and not care for their work. In fact, that’s usually the case with my writer friends. And I can think of at least one writer whose work I’m very fond of, but who is unpleasant in person. Cory is a rarity for me—a writer who I like a great deal both as a writer and a person. I sincerely enjoyed “Red Team Blues,” and I hope you do too.