The one where I rant (almost politely) about The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Who knew my mother would turn out to be right most of the time? Certainly not my teenage self. But, as she may have mentioned a time or three, it does indeed do me good to sleep on things before committing some of my more…enthusiastic shall we say?…thoughts to print. If I’d written this review the day I finished the book it would have been a complete rant…full of swearing and vitriol and at least nine libellous statements. Now I’ve calmed down a little I can put things into perspective. The book is still a long way short of my favourites list for the year but I am now prepared to concede it probably isn’t the confirmation we’ve all been looking for that civilisation as we know it is done for. Rather it’s just another in the growing line of barely adequate books from brand name authors who apparently can’t be edited.

The Fear Index takes place in Switzerland where ex-pat American über-genius Alex Hoffman has left his prestigious job at the Large Hadron Collider to set up a hedge fund. Using his mad mathematician skills he has created the world’s best algorithm for determining what the world’s financial markets will do before anyone else and has made himself, his business partner and their investors giant piles of cash. The sorts of cash piles you can’t get to the bottom of even when you buy $60 million houses. As the book opens Hoffman experiences a series of strange events – receiving a very expensive rare book through the mail, having a bizarre intruder at his house and closing down his wife’s art exhibition opening in a peculiar way – which point portentously to something being rotten in the state of money-making.

Harris did a lot of research in preparation for this book. I know he did a lot of research because it’s all in the book. Lengthy passages of jargon-rich exposition appear throughout, most often as the clunkiest dialogue two (or more) fictional human beings ever uttered. Real people, even nerdy ones, do not in my experience stop what they are doing every few minutes to explain the basic facts of their own work to each other. The other way the research has been included is that random bits of unrelated knowledge have been shoe-horned into the plot in a series of inexplicable scenes. For example somewhere among his reading the author learned of that German case where someone agreed to be eaten by someone else so in it went, regardless of how well (or not) it fit with the rest of the story.

Another thing that made this book a giant yawn for me is that it would appear the author never met a stereotype he didn’t like. There is not a single character in the book who even approaches credibility or uniqueness and they are all depicted very superficially. So the nerds are all vaguely autistic, the policeman is a bumbling fool of the Inspector Clouseau variety, the rich men are all greedy and uncaring and the knife-wielding psychopath has a ponytail. Even the computer program which turns out to have a personality all of its own is an imitation (though a poor one) of HAL 9000.

There can be little doubt that the shifts in the world’s financial markets and collapsing of whole economies in recent years could provide fascinating fodder for a thriller. There are a plethora of bad guys, innocent victims a-plenty, technology that only a handful of the smartest people on the planet understand and your choice of conspiracy theories about who is to blame for it all (depending on your political leanings and/or your personal threshold for what constitutes greed). Robert Harris took all of this promise and turned it into the most crushingly boring book I have read in a decade. To me it was a collection of tediously displayed research joined together by a series of ‘twists’ telegraphed so far in advance of their actual occurrence that I thought the author was repeating himself by the time I actually got to them.

If you want to read some dramatic, even thrilling, writing about last year’s ‘flash crash’ or the general morass that global finances have become try the newspaper columns or books of good financial journalists like Scott Patterson and Michael Lewis and for proper ‘machine becomes sentient being’ tales head for Arthur C Clarke or Robert A Heinlein and leave this dud to languish in the bottom of the bargain bin.

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17 Responses to The one where I rant (almost politely) about The Fear Index by Robert Harris

  1. I’m on the list at my local library for this one, as I’ve enjoyed a couple of his previous books. I’m probably not going to be able to read it now without laughing and thinking of this post.

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  2. Sarah says:

    1 star? Blimey that’s bad. And I quite enjoyed Harris’ previous books, even The Ghost which was a blatant rip off of characters in the Blair government. Perhaps I won’t read this after all.

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    • I’ve enjoyed Harris’ historical fiction too Sarah…thought GHOST was a bit pants really but had high hopes for this. Alas it ticked all my hot buttons of things not to do

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  3. Maxine says:

    Thanks for this review – I was going to read this but now won’t. I’ve read quite a few of Harris’s previous books but found them all rather choppy and unfocused. Enigma for example is nothing like as good as factual books I’ve read about Bletchley etc, or the play/film Plenty by David Hare. You have pointed out a few mistakes that authors make, the one about pages of research is really annoying, and one that marred a recent DNF for me (it was bad in other ways too – in particular one that looks the same as the Fear Index from your review – people able to do magic with technology without an explanation. This is so lazy and unsatisfying for the reader, as well as all the cliches, stereotypes etc.

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    • Maxine I quite liked some of Harris historical fiction – esp the Roman ones – I don’t think I ever did read Enigma but the Hitler one was a bit odd. I had heard mostly good things about this but I’ve read much better non-fiction about the subjects covered in this one. The thing is he kind of got the technology right here – well at least at the beginning – but he didn’t get the people right who were looking after it – they would never have allowed what happened to happen – though of course in the book they’re too busy explaining their own jobs that they’ve been doing for years to each other so I guess that explains why they let disaster strike 😉

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  4. Emily says:

    I agree with your review wholeheartedly. When I got hold of this book from my local library last month, I found the first few chapters extremely baffling and no matter how hard I tried, just couldn’t get into it. I gave it up immediately but then again, I thought maybe the book’s meant to be like that. It must be challenging to write a book that readers deem it necessary to chuck into the bottom of the bargain bin.

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  5. janebbooks says:

    Well, Bernadette, you really trashed this book. And with such style! Your rants are
    superb….especially regarding research and stereotype! The banking biz can be an exciting
    read. May I suggest to your readers the excellent NUMBERED ACCOUNT by Christopher Reichs?
    Here’s part of an Amazon US customer review that describes Reichs’ thriller::
    Numbered Account” is a very good book: the plot is interesting and the more you go on with it, the faster you want to turn pages. Although the beginning may be a bit slow, Reich makes his best when he describes the Swiss bank system, and it is almost as if you could hear the steps of someone entering one of these huge Swiss banks that look like ancient temples with their own
    codes and laws. The characters have enough depth and it is absolutely intriguing to enter the world of the private banking in Switzerland. The country is well described, while the emotional conflict of the main character is nicely outlined. It is evident that the author has a great knowledge of Switzerland, its banking system, and he has great skill because he managed to mix
    a potential boring theme like banking with a pacing personal war of Nicholas Neumann, the main character.

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  6. Bernadette – Ah, a book with just about every imaginable flaw…that’s happened to me, too. Sorry to hear it, as sometimes those “global thriller” novels can be good ones. This is definitely one book I won’t be putting my name down for at the library, or looking for at any bookshop. Can you make a book sticker with this on it? I’d love to be able to do that ;-).

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  7. Barbara says:

    OMG, this sounds AWFUL! I’m so angry at publishers who allow famous, lucrative authors to get by with this stuff. Many American authors have new books that are simply trash for the same reason, and others are hiring ghost writers who don’t have the talent to write anything much. Maybe that’s why many readers are going back to the classics.

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  8. Amy says:

    OMG, laughing out loud over here! Seriously, this rant is a good look for you! It’s perfect!

    >

    LOL! Found this in another book recently, sheesh, it’s so annoying. And the random factoids? I love it when an author thinks “damn, I spent the time and looked that up, so I’m going to use it somewhere”. Did the bad guy seriously have a ponytail? I’m guessing stubble too? Black tee-shirt? Sort of like Don Johnson-era Miami Vice meets Dog the Bounty Hunter? LOL
    I also think the rare book thing has been done before…hasn’t it?

    Great review Bernadette!
    And the hedge fund! That’s what made me laugh the most. Hedge fund manager! Seriously, show us a mastermind that works at the grocery store, it would be far more intriguing and suspenseful! I also like how you pointed out the problems with over-foreshadowing….snooze!

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  9. Kathy D. says:

    Great review, rant and discussion comments. I won’t be reading this book, but may check out a few mentioned above by bloggers.

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  10. sue says:

    I’ve got one word to say to you, “trenchant”. Really enjoyed this review. I too won’t be reading this book.

    I get cross when authors cannot bear to waste their research and insist on using it in the wrong places and in a stilted way that makes me want to scream. I stopped reading Linda Fairstein for this reason.

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  11. thanks Sue ;), and yes that is another author who seemed a little too keen to show off, I too have given up on her books

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