Robert Harris started his career as a journalist and produced a number of non-fiction titles (a highlight was Selling Hitler about the Hitler diaries scandal). He went on to produce a number of literate best-selling thrillers set in historical or faux historical settings, which I’ve read and very much enjoyed – Fatherland, an alternative history where the Nazis won World War II, Enigma with a real WWII background about the code breakers of Bletchley Park, Pompeii set against the backdrop of the erupting eponymous volcano. He has also written Archangel another thriller set in contemporary Russia, that I felt was a bit below par, mainly due to its bizarre final revelations. More recently he has started a trilogy about the Roman orator Cicero (that I’ve not read).
Then, after falling out with New Labour and especially his old friend Tony Bliar over the Iraq war, he apparently wrote a thinly disguised version of him and Cherie Blair in The Ghost. This is another I’ve not read as yet but I’ve seen the film, and even taken into account that the other film versions of Harris’ books have not been great, this is again not up to his old standards.
The Fear Index is his latest. It’s another contemporary thriller, this time set in the world of high finance, namely a new hedge fund based in Geneva. Instead of using the skill, experience and intuitions of human brokers to make the hedge fund’s trades, a hulking great big computer system – VIXAL – monitors the internet, only light-touch supervised by its priest-like team of geeky ‘qaunts’ (quantitative analysts). VIXAL looks for trends in the markets caused by when the other human brokers around the world start acting irrationally through fear and then takes advantage of their mistakes. At first the program is a great success producing unheard of profits, but then it starts making bigger and bigger unheadged trades (ie unprotected pure bets on the markets) as if it’s not just following trends but actually knows the future…
The programs was created by Alex Hoffman, an Artificial Intelligence researcher who was previously based at CERN. The novel starts with him recieving, without him remembering buying it, a first edition of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin (a book about the experience of fear). While he is pondering this he is attacked in his own home by a mysterious stranger who seems to have been able to walk right through all of Hoffmans’ elaborate scurity without a hitch. This is just the start of a number of increasingly mysterious events that, along with his VIXAL program seemingly racing out of control, raises his paranoia to breaking point. He’s already had one breakdown at CERN, is he heading for another?
The first few chapters of the book are pretty good with it getting off to a racing start. But unfortunately after that the novel has a number of problems. Probably the main one is I saw the big twist coming a mile away. It’s not exactly hard (you might have already got it from my brief synopsis), certainly anyone whose reasonably well-versed in science fiction film, books or television (off the top of my head I can think of at least two instances where it’s been used in Doctor Who) will soon catch on. Certainly some rather obvious allusions to Frankenstein – for instance, the Tyrolean Swiss setting, a minor character called Polidori and the of work of Hoffman’s wife, an artist using MRI scans, literally images of sliced up bodies, in her work – soon give the game away.
Harris has made good use of nerdy types in the thrillers he has previously written, like the sickly and eccentric code-breakers of Enigma. Even Pompeii’s protagonist is an aqueduct engineer, the pre-Christian equivalent of today’s looked-down-upon geek. They may not be typical action heroes but their courage in the face of adversity and other qualities make them likeable leads. Unfortunately the nerd protagonist of The Fear Index is deeply unsympathetic. Bankers and other financial types have little sympathy in general nowadays and hedge funders are like the para-military wing. Hoffman has so much money he cannot even put a figure on it only a guesstimate. It’s easy to side with people trying to beat Hitler or save loved-ones from an exploding volcano, not so much saving their undeserved wealth. Personality-wise Hoffman seems for the most part to be as unemotional and remote from those around him as his computer program. His partner in the fund, some horrific Hooray Henry type is no better. Though he could be a deliberate caricature. In fact some of the other financial types – in particular a set of wealthy investors are painted with a pretty broad brush as over-privileged monsters including an obvious dig at Fred ‘The Shred’ Goodwin of Royal Bank of Scotland notoriety.
It’s not actually impossible to create sympathy for people with more money than sense – Bonfire of the Vanities‘ Sherman McCoy is a despicable idiot at the start of the novel but by the end you end up feeling some sot of sympathy for him, not so with Hoffman or the other main characters. In the end I was rooting for the bad guy – not a good side.
There are a couple of minor characters who do engage – Hoffman’s wife, the traditionalist and staid professional ‘voice of reason’ in the hedge fund and a police inspector investigating the break-in – who bemoans having to live over the boarder in France as all the incoming new money has pushed up the property prices, forcing him out of the city he polices.
Where as in the past Harris created a vivid portrayal of the milieu his thrillers were set in, with rich descriptive language it all seems a bit slap-dash and superficial here. I wonder if his heart was really in it. Perhaps he just felt he needed to write a financial thriller as that was the ‘hot topic’ of the moment.
I recently re-read both Enigma and Pompeii and they still really hold up. I had been planning to fill in the gap and move on to reading The Ghost sometime soon after The Fear Index. But after reading Harris’ latest I fear I may not be returning to him for some time, if ever.