Talk about timing. Just as Robert Harris’s cautionary tale about the perils of meddling with the financial markets was hitting the shelves, Greece was teetering on the edge of default and Swiss Bank UBS announced that unauthorised trading by one of the company’s investment bankers had led to $2.3 billion worth of losses.
Harris has always had a nose for the topical. His 1999 novel, Archangel, noted that curious, self-sabotaging flaw in the Russian character which yearns for a totalitarian hard man in the Kremlin; a few years later, Vladimir Putin had completed his quiet ascent to the presidency. Harris’s wonderful 2007 thriller, The Ghost, functioned as a critique of the Blair government’s acquiescence in the face of grotesque American power. And in his trilogy about imperial Rome – Imperium, Lustrum, and Pompeii – some have detected a metaphor for the slow decline of western civilisation.
The Fear Index, which unfolds over the course of a single day in Switzerland, can be read as Harris’s response to the financial turmoil of the last few years. Our hero, if he can be classed as such, is American physicist Dr Alex Hoffmann, a borderline Aspergic who is
supremely indifferent to anything that [does] not engage him intellectually, a trait which had earned him a reputation… for being downright bloody rude.
Hoffmann, who lives in the same Geneva suburb in which Mary Shelley dreamed up the plot of Frankenstein, has invented VIXEL-4, an algorithmic super-computer that uses artificial intelligence to analyse every nuance of the stock market. In partnership with a smooth, public school educated front man, Hugo Quarry, Hoffman has set up a hedge fund that makes billion-dollar profits for its clients – until something starts to go wrong.
Novels about high finance are notoriously difficult to pull off. To the uninitiated, the world of stocks and shares, with its complex financial mechanisms and specialist jargon, can seem opaque and confusing. If you don’t know the difference between a shorted position and a collateralised debt obligation, some of the detailed and highly impressive research in The Fear Index may leave you cold.
The other problem with financial thrillers is one of emotional engagement. In the age of sovereign debt crises and Sir Fred Goodwin, can readers really be expected to empathise with characters which exist solely to make vast sums of money? Harris circumvents this problem by making his protagonist a troubled genius who, at the start of the book, falls victim to a brutal assault. In a bravura opening sequence, Hoffmann discovers that an intruder has somehow breached the state-of-the-art security at his $60m villa. Does he mean to kill him? To rape Hoffmann’s beautiful wife? Or perhaps to steal the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which Hoffmann has just been sent by an anonymous donor?
What follows is a slow-burning story of suspense and paranoia with a climax that will delight Harris’s legion of fans. The Fear Index may lack the giddy momentum of The Ghost, but its moral purpose is graver. Harris skewers the hubris and greed of the financial classes; the very people, indeed, who will consume the book with such relish. You wonder if they will view The Fear Index as anything more than a diverting read.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 1, 2011