An excerpt from The Bezzle

A George Clinton/Leonard Cohen-inspired royalty-theft caper.

Cory Doctorow
8 min readFeb 17, 2024

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The cover of the Tor Books edition of *The Bezzle*: a yellow background with the words ‘Cory Doctorow,’ ‘The Bezzle,’ “New York Times Bestselling Author,’ and ‘A Martin Hench novel.’ Between them is an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle (in blue, black and cream) that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

I’m on tour with my new novel The Bezzle! Catch me next in SALT LAKE CITY (Feb 21, Weller Book Works) and SAN DIEGO (Feb 22, Mysterious Galaxy). After that, it’s LA, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix and more!

A yellow rectangle. On the left, in blue, are the words ‘Cory Doctorow.’ On the right, in black, is ‘The Bezzle.’ Between them is the motif from the cover of *The Bezzle*: an escheresque impossible triangle. The center of the triangle is a barred, smaller triangle that imprisons a silhouetted male figure in a suit. Two other male silhouettes in suits run alongside the top edges of the triangle.

Today, I’m bringing you part one of an excerpt from Chapter 14 of The Bezzle, my next novel, which drops on Feb 20. It’s an ice-cold revenge technothriller starring Martin Hench, a two-fisted forensic accountant specialized in high-tech fraud:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250865878/thebezzle

Hench is the Zelig of high-tech fraud, a character who’s spent 40 years in Silicon Valley unwinding every tortured scheme hatched by tech-bros who view the spreadsheet as a teleporter that whisks other peoples’ money into their own bank-accounts. This setup is allowing me to write a whole string of these books, each of which unwinds a different scam from tech’s past, present and future, starting with last year’s Red Team Blues (now in paperback!), a novel that whose high-intensity thriller plotline is also a masterclass in why cryptocurrency is a scam:

https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250865854/redteamblues

Turning financial scams into entertainment is important work. Finance’s most devastating defense is the Shield Of Boringness (h/t Dana Clare) — tactically deployed complexity designed to induce the state that finance bros call “MEGO” (“my eyes glaze over”). By combining jargon and obfuscation, the most monstrous criminals of our age have been able to repeatedly bring our civilization to the brink of collapse (remember 2008?) and then spin their way out of it.

Turning these schemes into entertainment is hard, necessary work, because it incinerates the respectable suit and tie and leaves the naked dishonesty of the finance sector on display for all to see. In The Big Short, they recruited Margot Robbie to explain synthetic CDOs from a bubble-bath. And John Oliver does this every week on Last Week Tonight, coming up with endlessly imaginative stunts and gags to flense the bullshit, laying the scam economy open to the bone.

This was my inspiration for the Hench novels (I’ve written and sold three of these, of which The Bezzle is number two; I’ve got at least two more planned). Could I use the same narrative tactics I used to explain mass surveillance, cryptography and infosec in the Little Brother books to turn scams into entertainment, and entertainment into the necessary, informed outrage that might precipitate change?

The main storyline in The Bezzle concerns one of the most gruesome scams in today’s America: prison-tech, which sees America’s vast army of prisoners being stripped of letters, calls, in-person visits, parcels, libraries and continuing ed in favor of cheap tablets that bilk prisoners and their families of eye-watering sums for every click they make:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/14/minnesota-nice/#shitty-technology-adoption-curve

But each Hench novel has a variety of side-quests that work to expose different kinds of financial chicanery. The Bezzle also contains explainers on the workings of MLMs/Ponzis (and how Gerry Ford and Betsy DeVos’s father-in-law legalized one of the most destructive forces in America) and the way that oligarchs, foreign and domestic, use Real Estate Investment Trusts to hide their money and destroy our cities.

And there’s a subplot about music-royalty theft, a form of pernicious wage theft that is present up and down the music industry supply-chain. This is a subject that came up a lot when Rebecca Giblin and I were researching and writing Chokepoint Capitalism, our 2022 book about creative labor markets:

https://chokepointcapitalism.com/

Two of the standout cases from that research formed the nucleus of the subplot in The Bezzle, the case of Leonard Cohen’s batshit manager who stole millions from him and then went to prison for stalking him, leaving him virtually penniless and forced to keep touring to keep himself fed:

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2012/apr/19/leonard-cohen-former-manager-jailed

The other was George Clinton, whose manager forged his signature on a royalty assignment, then used the stolen money to defend himself against Clinton’s attempts to wrestle his rights back and even to sue Clinton for defamation for writing about the caper in his memoir:

https://www.musicconnection.com/the-legal-beat-george-clinton-wins-defamation-case/

That’s the tale that this excerpt — which I’ll be serializing in six parts over the coming week — tells, in fictionalized form. It’s not Margot Robbie in a bubble-bath, it’s not a John Oliver monologue, but I think it’s pretty goddamned good.

I’m leaving for a long, multi-city, multi-country, multi-continent tour with The Bezzle next Wednesday, starting with an event at Weller Bookworks in Salt Lake City on the 21st:

https://www.wellerbookworks.com/event/store-cory-doctorow-feb-21-630-pm

I’ll in be in San Diego on the 22nd at Mysterious Galaxy:

https://www.mystgalaxy.com/22224Doctorow

And then it’s on to LA (with Adam Conover), Seattle (with NealStephenson), Portland, Phoenix and beyond:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/16/narrative-capitalism/#bezzle-tour

I hope you’ll come out for the tour (and bring your friends)!

Between 1972 and 1978, Steve Soul (a.k.a. Stefon Magner) had a string of sixteen Billboard Hot 100 singles, one of which cracked the Top 10 and won him an appearance on Soul Train. He is largely forgotten today, except by hip-­hop producers who prize his tracks as a source of deep, funky grooves. They sampled the hell out of him, not least because his rights were controlled by Inglewood Jams, a clearinghouse for obscure funk tracks that charged less than half of what the Big Three labels extracted for each sample license.

Even at that lower rate, those license payments would have set Stefon up for a comfortable retirement, especially when added to his Social Security and the disability check from Dodgers Stadium, where he cleaned floors for more than a decade before he fell down a beer-­slicked bleacher and cracked two of his lumbar discs. But Stefon didn’t get a dime. His former manager, Chuy Flores, forged his signature on a copyright assignment in 1976. Stefon didn’t discover this fact until 1979, because Chuy kept cutting him royalty checks, even as Stefon’s band broke up and those royalties trickled off. In Stefon’s telling, the band broke up because the rest of the act — ­especially the three-­piece rhythm section of two percussionists and a beautiful bass player with a natural afro and a wild, infectious hip-­wiggle while she played — ­were too coked up to make it to rehearsal, making their performances into shambling wreckages and their studio sessions into vicious bickerfests. To hear the band tell of it, Stefon had bad LSD (“Lead Singer Disease”) and decided he didn’t need the rest of them. One thing they all agreed on: there was no way Stefon would have signed over the band’s earnings to Chuy, who was little more than a glorified bookkeeper, with Stefon hustling all their bookings and even ordering taxis to his bandmates’ houses to make sure they showed up at the studio or the club on time. Stefon remembered October of ’79 well. He’d been waiting with dread for the envelope from Chuy. The previous royalty check, in July, had been under $250. The previous quarter’s had been over $1,000. This quarter’s might have zero. Stefon needed the money. His 1972 Ford Galaxie needed a new transmission. He couldn’t keep driving it in first.

The envelope arrived late, the day before Halloween, and for a brief moment, Stefon was overcome by an incredible, unbelieving elation: Chuy’s laboriously typewritten royalty statement ended with the miraculous figure of $7,421.16. Seven thousand dollars! It was more than two years’ royalties, all in one go! He could fix the Galaxie’s transmission and get the ragtop patched, and still have money left over for his back rent, his bar tab, his child support, and a fine steak dinner, and even then, he’d end the month with money in his savings account.

But there was no check in the envelope. Stefon shook the envelope, carefully unfolded the royalty statement to ensure that there was no check stapled to its back, went downstairs to the apartment building lobby and rechecked his mailbox.

Finally, he called Chuy.

“Chuy, man, you forgot to put a check in the envelope.”

“I didn’t forget, Steve. Read the paperwork again. You gotta send me a check.”

“What the fuck? That’s not funny, Chuy.”

“I ain’t joking, Steve. I been advancing you royalties for more than three years, but you haven’t earned nothing new since then — ­no new recordings. I can’t afford to carry you no more.”

“Say what?”

Chuy explained it to him like he was a toddler. “Remember when you signed over your royalties to me in ’76? Every dime I’ve sent you since then was an advance on your future recordings, only you haven’t had none of those, so I’m cutting you off and calling in your note. I’m sorry, Steve, but I ain’t a charity. You don’t work, you don’t earn. This is America, brother. No free lunches.”

“After I did what in ’76?”

“Steve, in 1976 you signed over all your royalties to me. We agreed, man! I can’t believe you don’t remember this! You came over to my spot and I told you how it was and you said you needed money to cover the extra horns for the studio session on Fight Fire with Water. I told you I’d cover them and you’d sign over all your royalties to me.”

Stefon was briefly speechless. Chuy had paid the sidemen on that session, but that was because Chuy owed him a thousand bucks for a string of private parties they’d played for some of Chuy’s cronies. Chuy had been stiffing him for months and Stefon had agreed to swap the session fees for the horn players in exchange for wiping out the debt, which had been getting in the way of their professional relationship.

“Chuy, you know it didn’t happen that way. What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about when you signed over all your royalties to me. And you know what? I don’t like your tone. I’ve carried your ass for years now, sent you all that money out of my own pocket, and now you gotta pay up. My generosity’s run out. When you gonna send me a check?”

Of course, it was a gambit. It put Stefon on tilt, got him to say a lot of ill-­advised things over the phone, which Chuy secretly recorded. It also prompted Stefon to take a swing at Chuy, which Chuy dived on, shamming that he’d had a soft-­tissue injury in his neck, bringing suit for damages and pressing an aggravated-­assault charge.

He dropped all that once Stefon agreed not to keep on with any claims about the forged signature; Stefon went on to become a good husband, a good father, and a hard worker. And if cleaning floors at Dodgers Stadium wasn’t what he’d dreamed of when he was headlining on Soul Train, at least he never missed a game, and his boy came most weekends and watched with him. Stefon’s supervisor didn’t care.

But the stolen royalties ate at him, especially when he started hearing his licks every time he turned on the radio. His voice, even. Chuy Flores had a fully paid-­off three-­bedroom in Eagle Rock and two cars and two ex-­wives and three kids he was paying child support on, and Stefon sometimes drove past Chuy Flores’s house to look at his fancy palm trees all wrapped up in strings of Christmas lights and think about who paid for them.

If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:

https://pluralistic.net/2024/02/17/the-steve-soul-caper/#lead-singer-disease

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