‘The Fear Index,’ by Robert Harris

February 23, 2012

Baffling things are happening to Alex Hoffmann, co-founder of a wildly successfully hedge fund in Geneva and the protagonist of Robert Harris’s ingenious new novel, “The Fear Index.” First, he unexpectedly receives a package in the mail: a rare copy of a book by Charles Darwin, “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals,” with a bookmark calling attention to the section on fear.

Alex thumbs through the volume, shrugs and adds it to his “collections of books and antiques he did not need” in his and his wife’s ostentatious mansion, “a sort of pharaoh’s burial chamber for the living.” A few hours later, he wakes up in the middle of the night, hears a noise downstairs and discovers that a man has broken into the house without triggering its ace security system. When confronted, the invader looks very much like the fellow who personified fear in a photograph Alex saw in the Darwin book. The burglar gets away, but this emphasis on fear resonates with Alex because his fund is at work on a new computer program, VIXAL-4, designed to peg investments to the level of fear in the populace — the “Fear Index” of Harris’s title.

“Fear is historically the strongest emotion in economics,” Alex explains to a prospective investor. Alex also happens to live — as do we all — in an era cursed with the highest quotient of fiscal fright since the Great Depression. At the same time, of course, instilling fear is the thriller writer’s chief goal. In Harris’s expert hands, “The Fear Index” becomes an eerily troubling book, reminding us of the vulnerability brought into our lives by yo-yoing stock markets, Ponzi schemes, joblessness, downsizing, foreclosed mortgages and exhausted pension funds. “Why bother inventing outlandish tales about spies or serial killers,” Harris seems to have asked himself, “when the leading economic indicators are enough to strike terror in our hearts?”

Fear is by no means done with Alex. He soon learns that he ordered the rare Darwin book — or at least an e-mail from his account did, although he’s dead certain he didn’t send it. Then comes a brilliant scene at a gallery on opening night for a show of artworks by Gabrielle, Alex’s wife. Basing them on medical body scans (another fear-making element), Gabby has been working on these glass installations for years, and this is her first professional exhibition. The traffic is good, people say the right things about her vision, but no one is buying, and Gabby’s spirits sag. And then — but here, the conscientious reviewer must leave the gallery so as not to be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that Harris has dreamed up a fiendishly ingenious way to sabotage an art opening, and the blame falls on Alex.

Meanwhile, the fat cats being counted on to pump roughly $1 billion into development of VIXAL-4 are ready to commit — in spite of Alex’s increasingly eccentric behavior. He is beginning to think that the algorithm he created for earlier versions of VIXAL has exceeded its instructions. Like Hal, the night-deejay-voiced computer in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001,” this inanimate object might have a mind of its own, and Alex worries that VIXAL-4 will undertake to ensure the success of its fear-indexed investments by spreading its own terror.


”The Fear Index” by Robert Harris (Knopf)

Alex’s efforts to thwart his creation make for the only disappointment in the novel. Here, “The Fear Index” follows the car-chasing, lock-overcoming, bad-guy-dispatching outline of the standard thriller, and one wishes that somehow Harris had managed to give us a geekier denouement. I’m not sure what I’m looking for here — something physical, like a control-alt-delete corkscrew or a grand-slam log-off shimmy; or something more cerebral, like inserting the symbols for “less than zero” into a critical section of the coding? — but at least this much seems clear: Run-of-the-mill fisticuffs and explosions come as a letdown after so much ingenious buildup.

Even so, “The Fear Index” has enough suspense, cleverness and spookiness to warrant being added to your portfolio — er, I mean, your library.

Drabelle is the mysteries editor of Book World.

THE FEAR INDEX

By Robert Harris

Knopf. 286 pp. $25.95

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