The Empress File by John Camp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This involves a small group of people running an operation to take down a bunch of corrupt politicians who use extreme gerrymandering and dirty tricks to stay in power while they steal everything they can and screw over everyone they claim to represent in the process.
I kinda feel we should all be taking notes from this one.
Longstreet is small river city in Mississippi where the local officials are crooked as a dog’s back leg. After an innocent unarmed young black man is mistakenly killed by the police the whole thing is quickly swept under the rug. However, a group of left-wing activists have had enough and want to take over the town by any means necessary.
This brings artist/computer-expert/saboteur Kidd into it by his hacker buddy Bobby who was a friend of the murdered kid. The idea is Kidd will come up with a plan to dismantle the local political machine so the activists can take over the city council. Kidd is sympathetic to the cause, but his real motivation is that corruption means money being involved so there’s a good chance of a big payday. To help with that angle he contacts his friend/professional thief/sometime-lover LuEllen to help find a way to get the dirty officials out of office and steal all they can from them while doing so. However, they’ll have to be very careful because they’re kicking an awfully big hornet’s nest.
One of the primary reasons I really like it is that it’s just such a cool concept. A shady hacker tries to take down a ring of crooked politicians who control a small city? I could read about that all day long. As with the first book, The Fool's Run, the schemes that Kidd comes up with are devilishly clever and seem realistic. As he and LuEllen track down where the locals have stashed their loot so they can rob them, they’re also working on a scam to expose them as well cooking up a way for the activists to take over once the dust settles. Sandford has a knack for writing people planning and executing criminal acts, and these play out as essentially elaborate heist novels.
Another Sandford talent is creating characters that are fun to read about. Kidd and LuEllen are two great examples of this because they’re smart, funny, interesting, talented, and come across as real people instead of the kind of cartoon characters you get in lesser thrillers. They also don’t make excuses or rationalizations about who they are, and they have a clear-eyed pragmatism about being criminals despite sometimes having good intentions. Even though they try their best to avoid violence they’re also starting to question how many people still end up dead when they pull one of these jobs.
It’s also interesting that even though this book was published in 1991 and involves some computer tech that it doesn’t feel dated at all. In fact, even though Sandford has been writing these kinds of books for 30 years and frequently includes technology of the moment, they all age exceptionally well. That's probably because the main plots are rooted in ideas and themes that don’t change, and the tech is just window dressing. This book starts with a trigger happy cop killing an unarmed black kid, and then it rolls into massive political corruption. He obviously could have done that set-up today and just changed a few minor things like subbing wi-fi for dialing into a modem.
The only thing I disliked is that the main thug is the town’s animal control officer, and there’s a pretty nasty stuff in his treatment of dogs and cats to make it clear that he’s a sadistic bastard. Sandford doesn’t engage in misery or torture porn, but he does know how to write a scene that will make your skin crawl. Since I can’t stand to read about animals being abused I could have lived without that, but again, it’s relatively brief, and we don’t have to dwell on the details so it’s fairly easy to skim over and get the essence of that character.
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