Book Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

WARNING: Here be spoilers.

I really dug this book despite the fact I knew where it was going pretty early on.

The novel is set in Geneva, and concerns a bunch of extremely wealthy characters. The protagonist, Alexander Hoffman is a computing genius who left the CERN (the European science initiative where the large Hadron collider is) under a bit of a cloud and who has since struck it rich in the world of hedge funds and high finance thanks to an algorithm he created which tracks and predicts market trends, acting with little need for human control.

Hoffman wakens one night to discover an intruder in his house, who assaults him before fleeing the scene. The book then follows the next day in Hoffman’s life, he’s rattled and faces an important business meeting in which he is to reveal his new computer system, which tracks trends regarding fear and plays the stock exchange accordingly.

However, as the day progresses the system becomes unpredictable and appears unsustainable. It makes decisions none of the staff can explain and appears to have a mind of its own.

At the same time Hoffman, who its revealed has a history of mental health problems begins to fear for his sanity as he becomes increasingly paranoid and discovers that various odd events all appear to have been set in motion by himself, despite him having no recollection of them. Frazzled and increasingly erratic, Hoffman attempts to get to the bottom of things while his coworkers attempt to manage the situation.

The book is really well done, and Harris creates a short, pacy, engaging thriller. Like I said at the top of this post, early on I worked out what was going on, but this didn’t really spoil my enjoyment.

Harris has a knack for writing thrillers which feel very grounded in the real world, reflecting real world events.

The novel revolves around the world of stock exchanges and finances, which I don’t know much about and care about even less, but Harris manages to explain things to the reader in quick burst ensuring that the book never turns into an economy textbook. There’s a deftness of touch in these parts where its all fleshed out without the reader feeling that Harris is talking down to him, it also gives you some understanding of the events that follow.

But the money stuff is just background for the more interesting story of Hoffman’s unraveling. The fear and worry that overtakes him as he begins to fear for his mental health is involving, despite Hoffman being an inherently unlikable character. He’s socially awkward to the point of rudeness and emotionally cold and distant, like a sort of Sheldon Cooper figure, but not played for laughs.

However, its hard not to feel sympathy for the man, especially that as a scientist who prizes logic and reason it must be even more disturbing to suspect that your own mind is failing you. There’s something tragic about the character, and as things worsen for him and the situation makes him appear to be a guilty man, you do hope he can sort things out, despite his many character failings.

The other characters are done very well, from Hoffman’s concerned wife who until this point was unaware of the mental health history, which gives the story some heart although its never satisfyingly explained why an artistic and friendly woman like this would be attracted to the cold and painfully rational Hoffman.

The characters that work best are Hoffman’s business partner, Hugo and the detective investigating the break in, Leclerc. Hugo, a swaggering, gregarious British toff is the polar opposite of Hoffman and a far more likable, engaging character. The relationship between the two feels natural, with Hugo being the salesman of their partnership and his desire for money and skill for manipulation explaining how he has turned a man of science into the head of a hedge fund.

As for Leclerc, the old, glum detective is our entrance into this world. He regards the technology and banking world with sheer bemusement and serves as a reminder that while the influx of wealthy business types to Switzerland may do wonders for their economy it doesn’t help the regular, working Swiss, as Leclerc has actually been forced to move over the border into France as he can no longer afford to live in his homeland.

Harris creates tension early and layers on a sense of dread and of things spiraling out of control. Its a real page turner and I found myself flying through it once I got going.

There are flaws, like I said, the plot is fairly easy to predict as surely by now we all know that creating a computer that thinks for itself is unlikely to end well.

This is what happens when computers become self aware.

Also, the main character of Hoffman grated on me and while I largely got caught up with the story perhaps he could have been developed more. I suppose in a way the coldness works as it explains why a person would make some of the decisions, and making him a distant, logic driven figure means that we can see why he fits with what Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) says in Jurassic Park:

Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could they didn’t stop to think if they should.

But while he fits with the plot mechanics its his relationship with his wife where the character falls apart. It never feels natural, her attraction to him seems far too intellectual for a character who is shown to be more emotional and also, intellect doesn’t play that big a part in human relationships. Also, there’s a part where someone states that Alex used to babysit for them and she expresses disbelief and doubt as to how he’d be with kids when part of the backstory is that they’ve been trying for a kid. If you were that worried about someone’s abilities to deal with kids for one evening at a time would you really be considering starting a family with them?

The plot goes off on a sci-fi tangent, but Harris keeps it fairly grounded in reality and it never lurches into the realm of the ridiculous.

Verdict: A well structured, at times extremely gripping thriller where Harris shows a skill for creating tension and momentum, along with knack for realism and research, but its let down by some gaps in terms of characterization and a tad too predictable. 6/10

Any thoughts? You know what to do.

Next up on the reading list: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami.


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