Newest Review: ... which I think helped. I think that with no financial knowledge or interest, this book may just be a bit too turgid for the reader. I didn'... more
Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself
The Fear Index - Robert Harris
Member Name: SWSt
The Fear Index - Robert Harris
Date: 15/02/12, updated on 16/02/12 (33 review reads)
Advantages: Good once it gets going...
Disadvantages: ... But lots of turgid financial stuff to wade through before you get there
Alex Hoffmann is a computer genius who has developed a complex, self-learning algorithm that monitors millions of pieces of information - including human emotions (specifically fear) - and uses this to predict the stock market. Using this technology, Hoffman and his company have made millions. All, however, is not rosy and when someone tries to attack Hoffmann in his home, it unleashes a chain of events that threatens to destroy everything he has worked for. In order to save his company, Alex must find out who is behind the attack.
The Fear Index faces a number of uphill struggles early on which seriously impede the enjoyment levels that many readers will get from this book. First of all, a key part of the plot involves the complex world of international finance and the financial markets. Whilst this is something that is very topical, it is also a subject that most people will have only the vaguest knowledge and understanding of. International finance is a massively complex area and, for most of us, it's not exactly the most exciting thing in the world, making it a difficult base from which to build an engaging thriller.
Since it's essential that the reader has at least a general knowledge of this area to understand the plot Harris has to try and explain it. As a result, the first part of the book is incredibly turgid, full of explanations of futures, selling short and long and a myriad of other financial terms that meant absolutely nothing to me. Some of the concepts are explained just once; others (because they are central to the book's plot) are explained several times. This just has the effect of getting the book bogged down in a mire of dull detail, which deadens the pace.
This is exacerbated by the fact that Harris often doesn't do a very good job of explaining. I'm quite sure that he understands what he is talking about, but he puts it across badly, giving the reader no real incentive to understand. He bangs on and on about various financial theories and economic ideas but just comes across as someone giving a really boring lecture in international finance. There's no doubt that all this background information comes into its own later on, but it doesn't make for gripping reading whilst he is setting up his plot. If you also throw into the mix complex discussions of computer algorithms, you start to wonder whether you are reading this for fun or swotting up for an exam.
And this is not helped by the fact that most of the characters are deeply unlikeable. They come across as a highly selfish lot who are already obscenely rich and are interested only in making even bigger piles of money. This is particularly true in the case of Alex - the character through whose eyes most of the events unfold. Although clearly highly intelligent, he is also a bit of a cold fish, someone who is emotionally deeply dysfunctional. It's hard to like such a person and as I was reading the book, I always felt a distinct detachment from the on-page events and didn't really care that much what happened to him.
Characters are also pretty clichéd. The super-rich are arrogant, vain, thoughtless and obsessed by money; Alex is emotionally sterile and Inspector Leclerc (the policeman investigating the initial attack on Hoffmann) is a cynical but terrier-like investigator, determined to get to the bottom of what is happening. This clichéd approach to characters, combined with the dull, jargon-filled plot seriously hampers the pace of the book.
It's ironic then, that one of the book's initially most dislikeable characters - Hugo Quarry, Hoffman's CEO and right hand man - actually saves the day (in almost every sense of the phrase). Although sometimes a peripheral figure, it's Quarry that the reader warms to most, as his character undergoes the most development. By the end of the book, you actually feel quite sympathetic towards him - not something you would ever have imagined happening when you started reading. Indeed, you begin to wonder why Harris didn't centre the book around him, because he's actually far more interesting than anyone or anything else contained in the pages.
By now you might be starting to wonder why on earth I have awarded The Fear Index as many as three stars, given that all I have done so far is complain. The main reason is that the book does eventually get going about 150 pages in and starts to become a competent thriller (although never more than that). Once all the boring stuff about international finance and computer algorithms is out of the way, Harris can finally get on with doing what he's actually quite good at - telling a story that's based in the real world but also makes for an exciting thriller.
As soon as Alex moves away from the confines of his stiflingly dull company and starts to investigate who is out to destroy him, the book improves beyond all measure. There's nothing particularly new or innovative going on (Alex faces a series of threatening situations and as he overcomes each one, starts to figure out a little more about what is happening), but at least there's something to keep the reader interested. The only problem is that by the time this happens, I suspect that Harris might already have lost a lot of readers who will have given up in frustration. It's here that stubbornness is rewarded, because once you hit the 150 page mark, the book improves immeasurably, and the story starts to provide the sort of intrigue and excitement that readers have come to expect from Robert Harris. It's just a real pity that you have to wade through 150 pages of turgid, dull, incomprehensible financial stuff before you reach this point.
Ultimately, this is a competent and reasonable thriller; but, dear Lord, it takes an eternity to get there.
The Fear Index
Cost: c. £7 (hardback) £6 (Kindle)
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: If you have the patience, it's a competent thriller