Cory Doctorow: Red Team Blues — a medium-boiled forensic accountant detective novel, with crypto and gangsters

  • Cory Doctorow: Red Team Blues (Tor, 2023 — US, UK)

This is a medium-boiled detective novel. Martin Hench is a freelance forensic accountant and old-school cryptography guy who lives quite well from his occasional jobs recovering stolen cash. Marty is sixty-seven and more than ready to retire from the tech gumshoe life. But he knows his stuff, and keeps getting calls from the many good friends he’s accumulated over the decades.

Danny is another old-school cryptography guy. He runs Trustlesscoin, a cryptocurrency blockchain that solves the Sybil problem with secure enclaves. (See Mobilecoin for one real-world example.) Danny somehow got hold of the private keys to various computer manufacturers’ secure enclaves — which would let him fix issues on Trustlesscoin, but would also let an attacker get into millions, if not billions, of devices of all sorts. The securely stored laptop with the keys has been stolen, and Danny has been pickpocketed of the hardware token to open it.

Danny calls his old friend Marty to help him recover the keys, or at least the laptop. He doesn’t think it’s possible to recover even the laptop, but Marty is the only hope he has left. Danny’s threat model is the criminals who he knows are laundering money on Trustlesscoin, who will be very unhappy with him if it gets hacked. And the ones who stole the keys in the hope of hacking Trustlesscoin will be even unhappier.

Chapter one is an extensive “As you know, Bob” exposition, where Danny and Marty explain to each other how cryptocurrency works — when we’ve already been told they’re experts. Just including the Trustlesscoin white paper wouldn’t have been worse.

I was almost put off by the “As you know, Bob,” but I kept reading because I got hooked on the puzzle, which is the sort of problem that would interest the sort of people who read this blog. It works. The characters develop character along the way.

The initial mystery is solved a third of the way in. Then the battery of Marty’s electric car catches fire, and it looks like it might have been tampered with by the very disappointed extremely bad guys.

Marty shows us how open your data is if sufficiently powerful actors want to trace you, and the ways that people who are in sore need of a guillotine stash their money overseas. This is Doctorow ranting about these guys as he does in his more pissed-off blog posts, but he makes it work.

The plot finishes mostly off-screen, which is a bit dissatisfying. But the book ends happily, modulo a lot of dead gangsters.

I enjoyed it, more than I expected. If you are cynical about crypto and enjoy reading about financial shenanigans — the world’s most interesting topic — then you may enjoy it too.

This is apparently the first in a possible series of Martin Hench novels. Should be good.

“Finally, thanks to every crypto grifter for giving me such fertile soil to plow.”

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