Wednesday, 12 October 2011

"The Crash of '79", Paul Erdman

Sometimes it's all too easy to start a theme going, and financially based thrillers seem as good a one for the moment as any.

I distinctly remember Paul Erdman's "The Crash of '79", and what I always regarded as its successor, "The Panic of '89" being present in vast quantities in the thriller/action section of my local second hand bookstore in Dublin as I grew up during the 1980s. To my teenage eyes they never really appealed, tastes running to more the whiz-bang end of the spectrum then, but as time passes so do tastes change, and when one of my explorations into one of Vermont's many second hand literary Alladin's Caves in Brattleboro last December (Brattleboro Books on Elliot St - which I sincerely hope survived the ravages of Hurrican Irene) yielded up "Crash of '79" for a princely dollar fifty, it seemed churlish not to give it a go.

It seems on the surface ridiculous to mention what initially seems like a true piece of 1970s schlock in the same breath as Harris' "Fear Index", but in actual fact Erdman, a rare beast in being a banker who actually served time in prison for being bad at his job, provides a more relevant tome for today. We have creaking European economies, banks grown fat on deeply flawed asset backed securities, high oil prices with a depressed tanker market, and a cash rich 'new economy' with the potential to re-energise the financial system and shake it out of a prolonged recession. Despite being nearly 40 years old, you can't help thinking the work strikes a chord.

Despite this, it is very dated. The 1970s haven't quite yet had the Mad Men reinvention in popular culture, and as such there's a lot about "The Crash of '79" that makes you wince. The 'hero', Bill Hitchcock, is either an thoroughly unpleasant piece of work, or maybe the 1970s really were like that. Either way, passages such as "in the cab on the long way into town, I decided on my order of priorities: first a drink, then a piece of ass" (p.36 of the 1976 Simon and Schuster edition) jar a little in the present day - and there's a lot of this to get through.

All this said it's strangely readable in a guilty pleasure way, and not just for the economic lessons or the snapshot of 1970s culture, there's a pleasing insight into how most people misread how the 1970s would segue into the 1980s. There's no hint that the Shah, portrayed as an uber alpha male, would flee, dying, into exile in the very year that Erdman saw him making his grab for the Saudi oil fields that would topple the world economy, no suggestion that the 1980s would presage a prolonged era of low oil prices, which would drive a long boom and ultimately play its part in ending the Cold War.

In many levels my teenage self was right to leave "The Crash of '79" on the shelf, it's not great literature, but there's still a suspicion that I might hang on to this, or at the very least use it to torment friends in the oil industry.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

“The Fear Index”, Robert Harris

One of the less trendy elements in my reading habits is finding financial thrillers genuinely interesting. I’m one of these people who, many years ago, enjoyed the stock market elements in Tom Clancy’s "Debt of Honour", and I see it as sad that authors like Paul Kilduff and Michael Ridpath have moved away from the financial sector, to budget airlines and Icelandic crime respectively. This is reinforced by the notion that the prolonged economic slump should provide us with the sort of raw materials to deliver a first rate page turner.

Robert Harris thus should be ideally positioned to deliver with “The Fear Index”, looking at a hedge fund trading on the volatility that people’s elemental fear introduces, reflecting the opportunities offered by human irrationality, and to some extent it works, but deep down, there’s a frustration that somehow an opportunity has been missed.

Harris built his reputation with intelligent, thoughtful novels, with plausible characterisation and pacing. “Fatherland” and “Enigma” built on his journalistic reputation, and provided us with something that could legitimately be seen as literature. Latterly however we can see something of a transition into a much more populist author. While “The Fear Index” lays claim to the highbrow high ground with quotations from Darwin and passages on the nature of what makes people frightened, this feels a lot more lightweight than his earlier work.

Indeed it’s almost possible to cast Harris as straying into Dan Brown territory here. With tongue a little in cheek, let’s look at the linkage with CERN, the plot running its course over a 24 hour period, and ultimately, an “opponent” with the capacity to exercise vast power over the entire world, sounding familiar yet? It’s not helped by a nagging sense throughout that we’ve somehow come across a lot of this before, especially in the latter third, where (and I hope I’m not giving too much away here) there’s a  very 2001 like sense of “the computer is trying to kill me”; it’s the sort of thing that mildly exasperates.

Leaving all this aside, I don’t begrudge the time or expense involved in “The Fear Index”. It is readable, engaging, and enjoyable – and was the right companion for a week of glass blowing in the West Country. It does however say something that I’ve mulled over the book in the days since finishing it, and most of this has reflected a nagging sense that it wasn’t quite as good as it should have been – it’s all a little too superficial, and ultimately undoes a lot of the real depth that made Harris’ reputation in the first place. Transforming himself into Michael Crichton will probably do Harris a lot of good in terms of his sales figures, but for me he’s no longer the must read author he once was. 

"The Fear Index" became one of those books left in the rental cottage, which sums it up. A good holiday read, but not a keeper.