The Bezzle

by Maria on March 6, 2024

I recently read Cory Doctorow’s new novel, The Bezzle. (FYI his publisher sent me a copy.) It’s the follow-up (and in the story’s own timeline, a prequel) to Cory’s excellent tech-themed thriller, Red Team Blues. The hero of Red Team Blues is Marty Hench, a forensic accountant who loves barbecuing, whiskey, and exposing elaborate financial scams, especially cryptocurrency ones. He’s in his early sixties and gets called in by a vastly wealthy friend to retrieve the crypto-key an international crime family is after. It’s a thrilling ride that got me back into reading the first time covid fried my brain. Red Team Blues is also fascinating on crypto and cyber-security, and its attention to cultural and sociological detail is lovingly rendered, line by snappy line. The Bezzle takes Marty back to the dot com boom. Same guy, very different novel. Utterly worth your time.

First, the title. ‘Bezzle’ was coined by JK Galbraith to describe the blissful and often long moment when an embezzlement has occurred but before it’s been discovered. The embezzler has his money. The victim still thinks he has his. It’s the gravity-defying interval when Wile E. Coyote is running on air and hasn’t begun to fall.

The Bezzle is about three bezzles of wildly increasing severity. The first is when guys like Marty’s younger buddy, Scott Warms, sell their tech firms to Yahoo and still think the product they built will survive. Scott has recently sold his company and become a Yahoo employee, realising too late that Yahoo only acquired his product to kill the competition. Now, Scott’s job is to evaluate other acquisitions for Yahoo. He tries to warn people against selling to Yahoo, but most prefer the money and some wishful thinking. The bezzle is a happy place to be. No one wants to be told they’re in it.

Scott’s still quite rich, so he and Marty fly to Catalina Island near Los Angeles to blow off some steam. In Catalina’s capital, Avalon, as we’re (just a little repetitively) told, there is no crime. It’s a policing grey area and the full force of the law is only applied to worker bees, not visiting millionaires. Marty and Scott discover and disrupt a Ponzi scheme that’s sucked in many locals, and make a powerful enemy. The victims initially can’t believe their money’s gone. There must be a way out, they plead, but Marty says it’s a negative-sum game. They lost the money the moment they paid in. Once you’re in the bezzle, all you can do is pull down the pyramid, and fast. The longer it goes, the more lives it wrecks. The person running the scheme sets the rules and breaks them, just like in bigger, officially sanctioned, white collar frauds.

In this well-made novel, there’s a third, devastating pyramid scheme which the first two have set us up to read. This time, the criminals at the top are the private equity firms that have rolled up California’s and other US states’ prisons into ownership by a single firm. They’ve loaded it with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, taken a massive pay-off equivalent to that debt, and begun to squeeze states, employees, prisoners and prisoners’ families dry, just to pay the interest on the debt. The Bezzle tells how the PE-backed privatisers monetise and drain everything that makes a prisoner’s life bearable; sufficient calories, reading material, time outside the cell, phone calls, and family visits. Late in the book Marty says the cruelty isn’t the point; it’s the money. It was always the money.

The state has lost its money as soon as it signs the deal, as PE firms hoover up and run down public assets and services. The taxpayers have lost theirs, though they’re happy with life in the bezzle, assuming that prison is just something that happens to people who deserve it, so the more of it, the better. The prisoners and their families are miserable, but they were never the marks, just the means. Can Marty watch out for his friend and unravel this fraud? Maybe. It’s a novel, not a just-so story.

Recently, a friend told me what he thinks is the Jack Reacher novels’ secret sauce. Yes, they have short sentences, short chapters and lots of cliff-hangers. (And a thoroughly delightful author who’s an interesting reader, supports writing in general and IMHO deserves every bit of his success.) But what keeps people (mostly men who don’t read many other novels) coming back for more is that Reacher is full of information about how things work. Things like locks, rifles, security systems; practical, manly stuff. I was stunned, to be honest. It had never occurred to me that people use novels to get information you can find in a Youtube tutorial. But it makes sense!

I enjoy the how-things-work of Cory’s novels as much as I do the stories and characters. The truth is, they all work together. There’s reason and urgency to his descriptions of financial records cross-referencing, or searching out owners on the supposedly anonymous blockchain, and the characters doing the explaining have a strong point of view. Their specialist knowledge cuts new paths to move through the world. Anyway, anyone who loves historical fiction, crime procedurals, and of course science fiction and fantasy, knows that half the fun is the world-building, which is just another way to say world-explaining.

Quite possibly this is all so obvious it doesn’t need to be said! But I was surprised and quite delighted to remember Jack Reacher this morning when I sat down to try and convey the rich reading pleasure in a novel of the grimmest of topics, the American carceral state. This book is a furious, clear-eyed, accounting of the obfuscated numbers that make the United States the country that’s imprisoned more people than any other regime, ever. And so many of them brown and Black. It’s a novel of issues, presented as they should be, detail by devastating detail. The issues and ideas are this novel’s warp, the specificity and sometimes surprising emotional truths its weft. (Like Marty’s first adventure, this one is grounded in male friendship and thoughtful care. Also book chat! The all-male prison reading-group’s take on The Hobbit is one for the ages.)

While company names are changed, the novel draws deeply on real life horrors like the ‘deputy gangs’ of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. These gangs of neo-Nazi police were (are?) made up of men who batter and kill people of colour, openly and with near impunity. The novel’s reach extends to the capture and exploitation of inmates’ reading, with libraries shut, physical books forbidden, and prisoners forced to pay premium rates to temporarily license on their shitty Android devices, books that are long out of copyright. There’s also a surprising but believable overlap of interest between the extraction capitalists and the Nazi cops. One side whittles down and extorts the sustenance prisoners need to survive with some humanity intact, the other ensures a steady supply of mostly brown and Black bodies to imprison.

I compared the first Marty Hench novel, Red Team Blues – about blockchain and the white-collar butler class to global crime – to Dickens’ Bleak House. In both, a single case is the centrifuge. Its effects spin out to show how the privileged classes are so eagerly corrupted. This time round, The Bezzle does for privatised Californian prisons what Little Dorrit did for the Marshalsea. There are people who know what’s up and should do better don’t, or can’t; the California Attorney General’s office is almost as pathologically helpless as Dickens’ “Circumlocution Office”, especially when Trump’s presidency ushers in the US’s ‘golden age of grift’. Similarly to Little Dorrit, The Bezzle puts the most blameless character possible into the maw of for-profit incarceration. Just as sweet young Amy Dorrit was her era’s most attractive innocent, our version is Scott Warms, an agreeable if initially callow young tech bro.

Scott is white, educated, rich and connected; the sort of person least likely to be convicted of any crimes he might commit, and a type whose incarceration is often portrayed at sentencing hearings and in newspaper reporting as unnatural and especially tragic. His was a life considered to be worth something before he ‘threw it all away’. Scott has the book thrown at him because, although he’s rich and white, he’s crossed someone richer and better connected. He also has the misfortune to be sentenced during the US’s baseball-inspired jurisprudence of ‘three strikes, you’re out’, kicked off by California and made into federal law by Bill Clinton. I won’t spoil the ending, but where Scott lands after years in prison is both extraordinary and satisfying. Marty ends the novel somewhat chastened, and on his way to being the more thoughtful person we meet in Red Team Blues.

The Bezzle has surprises, pleasant and otherwise. The textures and observations of the dot com boom are spot on and brought me right back. There’s a ridiculous dot com in the opening pages, and someone has to dial long-distance to their home ISP to download their email. Monied men wear Japanese denim and grumpy old (or middle-aged) farts refer to GW Bush as “Shrub”. I love Cory’s attention to male fashion and how it expresses and maintains status.

This focus is pointed at the physical and mental conditions of prisoners, too, and at their families. One short waiting room scene gives a vignette of the pain of incarceration without rehabilitation, respect or the most basic of care, as it impacts on families and loved ones. Each little group gets half a dozen or a dozen words, and each contains a world of sorrow. At one especially low point in Scott’s incarceration, Marty describes him as a “shattered zombie”. At another, as “a lousy JPEG of himself”. The details matter, to novelists and forensic accountants. They add up.

The Bezzle also made me think about something else almost too obvious to mention, how money and power are concentrated to make some people’s lives frictionless and insolently unaccountable, and to strip other people’s lives of the tiniest of pleasures, the most essential of connections and experiences. By coincidence, I’ve just finished Emily St John Mandel’s novel, The Glass Hotel, about a Bernie Madoff-like fraud. There’s a line, late in the book, that basically says luxury is weakness. Which, of course. The cashmere jumpers so soft on the skin, the memory foam and anticipation of needs, the private chefs and masseuses. It bears saying again, since luxury functions as the spoils in a war-like conflict of ‘survival of the fittest’ that really, is mostly just fraud; the rich aren’t the strongest. They’re just the best protected. What they’re best protected from and fear most of all are consequences. As this novel shows, in any real jeopardy they quickly fold.

It’s inevitable that we compare books we’re reading to other recent reads. Scott reminds me of Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, who’s stripped bone-clean by hardship and becomes another, nobler version of himself. (I’m always reading, or tbh listening to the audiobook of Piranesi. It’s been three years now and I think about him all the time.) Just occasionally, people who are meant to be broken, aren’t. I’m not sure we deserve their stories, but we do seem to need them.

It cannot be said too many times that white-collar criminals largely go free and unmolested, while the people they prey on are so often crushed. Mandel’s Madoff-like character ends his days in humane prison conditions that should be universal but are reserved for rich white men, double-agents and child abusers. He muses about how money is a game with two levels, and he’s always been able to play at the higher one. But while Mandel holds the grit of material suffering at a remove – insulated always by gossamer suggestions that this is just one of infinite possible worlds, anyway – Cory’s Bezzle doesn’t look away. Justice is in short supply, but with Marty Hench involved, there’s always the chance of balancing the books.

The Bezzle is an exciting financial thriller, a deeply grounded, campaigning novel, a bravura display of how SFF world-building can strip America’s real-life self-mythology bare, and above all a heartfelt tale of loyalty and friendship in near-impossible conditions. I strongly recommend it.



AcademicLurker 03.06.24 at 4:11 pm

It’s the gravity-defying interval when Road Runner is running on air and hasn’t begun to fall.

I think you mean Wile E. Coyote…


Maria 03.06.24 at 5:38 pm

aha! so I did. corrected now, thank you!


Sashas 03.06.24 at 5:53 pm

Maybe it’s finally time for me to give Doctorow’s writing another chance. Compelling review!


AcademicLurker 03.06.24 at 6:29 pm

But what keeps people (mostly men who don’t read many other novels) coming back for more is that Reacher is full of information about how things work. Things like locks, rifles, security systems; practical, manly stuff. I was stunned, to be honest.

I think it’s been appreciated for a while that copious amounts of “specialist” knowledge is a big part of the appeal of technothrillers.

Tom Clancy is the biggest name, but I think the real master is Frederick Forsyth. The Dogs of War includes pages and pages describing the process of setting up a dummy corporation through which to funnel money to purchase bullets. My favorite is from The Day of the Jackal. At one point the anonymous protagonist gets a false British passport through a complicated scheme exploiting an obscure loophole in the law. The process is described in painstaking detail, and apparently Forsyth did his research thoroughly enough that loophole was real and the scheme would work in the real world. From wikipedia: “The method for acquiring a false identity and UK passport detailed in the book is often referred to as the “Day of the Jackal fraud” and remained a well known security loophole in the UK until 2007.”


John Q 03.06.24 at 10:11 pm

Great review, Maria ! I was thinking I should write one, but now I can just link here.

And the timing is great because yesterday Cory Doctorow announced a “pay what you want” offer for a bundle of all of his e-books except The Bezzle. I have most but will be able to complete the set, as well as continuing my shift away from paper.


Sam Qwykr 03.06.24 at 10:13 pm

How do you guys even decide whose books to read? What if you are missing something good?


KT2 03.06.24 at 10:28 pm

Maria, me too…”It had never occurred to me that people use novels to get information you can find in a Youtube tutorial. But it makes sense!”

I was raised in the “practical, manly stuff” so Jack Reacher types don’t do it for me.

Yet here is the other end of the Jack Reacher spectrum “How a kids’ novel inspired me to simulate a gene drive on 86 million genealogy profiles”… leading to how “Researchers have tested gene drives for disease control, mostly against mosquitos.” .. “used CRISPR/Cas9 to make all female offsprings of mosquitos sterile, eliminating an entire mosquito population in only seven generations.”
“Hmm. If a parent has the gene drive, then all their children will inherit the gene drive.”

Bravo for gene drives as the next generations will be utilising; “A gene drive is a natural process[1] and technology of genetic engineering that propagates a particular suite of genes throughout a population[2] by altering the probability that a specific allele will be transmitted to offspring (instead of the Mendelian 50% probability). Gene drives can arise through a variety of mechanisms.[3][4] They have been proposed to provide an effective means of genetically modifying specific populations and entire species.” Wikipedia Gene drive.

“How a kids’ novel inspired me to simulate a gene drive on 86 million genealogy profiles”
Nov 10, 2018
“I read a novel where the rules for inheriting witchcraft resembles the real-world gene drive, so I developed a simulation and queried 86 million genealogy profiles to see how witchcraft would spread in real life.”

“You might think I’m immature because I’m an adult reading kids’ books. I disagree. Middle-grade books (novels written for 9-12 year olds) distill a wide variety of topics, human nature, and life lessons into a short and concise format: I can finish one in just one afternoon, learning new things and acquiring fresh ideas along the way. So no, I’m not being childish: I’m being efficient!”

“My blog where I make a new coding project every Thursday”
github zhuowei

Maria, glad The Bezzle got you “back into reading the first time covid fried my brain.”

I’ve suggested previously to JQ, hoping CT does a Cory Doctorow Seminar ala Charles Stross etc.
How about it CT? And you beat me to it JQ.
“Humble Bundle to sell 18 of my ebooks on a name-your-price basis, with part of the proceeds going to benefit EFF:”

Thanks in anticipation.


Matt 03.07.24 at 3:24 am

But what keeps people (mostly men who don’t read many other novels) coming back for more is that Reacher is full of information about how things work. Things like locks, rifles, security systems; practical, manly stuff.

My father used to like to read western novels by Louis L’Amour. These were full of little bits of “frontier” or “cowboy” information, but I’ll admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about how accurate much of it was. I guess that these days it’s easier to both look up the details of what one’s writing about, and to check to see if the author has “got things right”, so maybe accuracy has gone up, but I’ll admit again that I think it would not be super wise to use fiction books as a how-to manual, maybe especially ones like the Reacher books, which seem like many wish-fulfillment to me. (I expect the wish-fulfillment aspect is the real secret of the success of the books, with being extremely competent at all sorts of tasks being up there with being huge, physically dangerous, buff, and very successful with the ladies as the wishes being fulfilled.)


craig fritch 03.07.24 at 8:49 pm

Reacher is the paragon of living-light-on-the-Earth. Also violent. And, curiously not sadistic: no sex. He’s a arthurial knight.


Kaleberg 03.08.24 at 5:30 am

In one of his essays, David Mamet said that a playwright needs to establish credibility with the audience early on. One way was to explain something to show a certain level of expertise. Mamet would often carefully explain things like how a con worked or how the restaurant supply wholesale business worked. I remember Lanford Wilson devoting an aside to explain how roses are propagated from seed. It’s a story telling technique.


Maria 03.08.24 at 2:07 pm

So much good stuff in this thread! It’s really delightful to hear about all these writers who’ve been doing this forever, and also, re. Kaleberg, why. Makes sense. Henry and I have also been having an interesting correspondence with Cory about what novels can transmit, and I think/hope that if Henry writes something about this book, he’ll build on that. It’s a fascinating topic.

I’m also reminded that in both Marty Hench books, Marty sets up what’s effectively a teach-in on finance and economics to share his knowledge and empower other people. It’s a nice echo of what I think Cory’s doing.

A couple of quick answers to questions:

Sam – like anyone else I decide what fiction to read based on a bunch of factors; I like the author’s work already, the topic/story/setting is interesting to me, it’s in a genre or sub-genre I’m devoted to, etc. Like everyone else I also miss lots of good books. I try to write about the ones I think are especially good and/or doing something I think is unusually interesting and worthwhile. I also write sometimes about books by friends. I don’t feel too nepotistic or insider-y about this as typically the writer has first become a friend because I liked their work, rather than it being back-scratching.

KT2 – It’s not listed in the sidebar but we actually did a seminar with Cory about his novel Walkaway a few years ago:

Craig – YES. Book and also Netflix Reacher is a projection of a certain ideal masculinity. I hadn’t noticed but love that for him, violence is never sadistic. It’s just another technique he has mastered.


KT2 03.08.24 at 8:49 pm

Thanks Maria, & CT.
Should have guessed Cory made it here.
Lesson re-learned. Search first.


P.M.Lawrence 03.09.24 at 3:37 am

Some of the science/engineering in Reacher novels is more entertaining than sound. For instance, consider what really happens if you try to use suction to draw liquid fuel a great height out of a tank, and through a hose designed for positive pressure at that.


Ebenezer Scrooge 03.10.24 at 9:27 pm

It’s not only manly stuff that can be technically accurate. Consider the genre of historical novels, and the ultra-girly Regency example of Georgette Heyer’s “An Infamous Army.” She took a lot of pains to get the Battle of Waterloo absolutely right.


Mike 03.11.24 at 9:39 pm

Maria, the comparison to Dickens and his themes is interesting. I’m now wondering what Cory’s Martin Chuzzlewit would look like. : )


Maria 03.12.24 at 10:00 am

No worries, KT2 – I’d semi-forgotten and looked it up not entirely sure it actually happened.

Indeed, Ebenezer. There’s a lot of love for Georgette in these parts.

Mike, I’m mortified to admit I’ve never read that one.


Kristoffer 03.12.24 at 2:25 pm

Heh, it’s funny what you wrote about the reacher novels. I used to think the same about Ed McBains books. They each have a subject that he has studied and then explains in great detail. There was one about how a circus works, one about the burglar.

Sad thing is that once I saw through it I couldn’t enjoy his books any more. I could only see the form. I think that’s why the stand out moment from The Road is when the dad disassembles a gas stove and puts it back together. It really snapped me out of it.


Chris Bertram 03.12.24 at 3:04 pm

I once took Lee Child’s consumer advice and bought a pair of Cheaney brogues but with Dainite rather than leather soles (as Reacher was wearing in, I think, The Killing Floor). The sole is absolutely deadly on a wet tiled surface. You might as well be on ice. Now that they need repair, I’m having the soles swapped for leather.


LizardBreath 03.12.24 at 4:04 pm

Dick Francis is another one — all of his mysteries are giant piles of trivia about steeplechase riding, and usually one other profession per book: being a wine merchant or a jeweler or a (1980s vintage) computer hacker or a private detective.


Cola Vaughan 03.16.24 at 1:31 am

Travis McGee comes to mind: “To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”—Kurt Vonnegut. Bonus his bestie Meyer is a forensic accountant so you get the explanation for the financial chicanery along with the can-do Reacher like character of McGee.


Kromhout 03.17.24 at 8:35 pm

Thanks for the lovely review Maria, and to CT for nudging me towards Cory Doctorow.

I just finished the book as well, and really enjoyed it. It’s like (an angry) Brett Christophers mixed with the Big Lebowski.

For me it continued a reading spree of financially themed scifi (+-), including the Glass Hotel (also finished it last month, perhaps not so coincidental because it was in a recent CT book blog), Red Team Blues and Venomous Lumpsucker – a book on shorting mass extinction. Any tips to lengthen that list?


Reader 03.19.24 at 3:34 pm

KT2, who addresses these sorts of attacks happening in real life?

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