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.

1 comment:

  1. I know just what you mean by your last para. I have been dithering over this one, as it isn't my usual cup of tea but I'd been swayed by reviews, etc. I read Fatherland a while ago but did not like it as much as SS GB. I have not read his historical novels or Ghost but various family members have. I won't prioritise The Fear Index in the light of your excellent review.

    BTW I do like Ridpath's Icelandic novels. They have a love of the culture/history (sagas and so on) that seems missing in the native Icelandic crime fiction that's been translated. I did read some of Ridpath's financial thrillers when they came out but I think the series got less good after the first two or three.

    I would like to read a really good financial thriller/crime novel, though. I read one by Martin Baker a year or two ago and was underwhelmed. I think it is one of those genres where the author is tempted to go for the global meltdown/conspiracy angle, whereas smaller is often better.

    Nice to see you posting again, btw.