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By Robert Harris

Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2012 ($25.95)

ISBN-13: 978-0-307-95793-1
Kindle eBook: ($12.99)

Reviewed by Sam Waas

Students of fear vary across the spectrum: psychologists, animal behaviorists, politicians, film makers, and of course thriller authors. Robert Harris opens an innovative and modern perspective upon this ancient emotion in THE FEAR INDEX.

The novel is superbly crafted, smart, and well paced. This is not a book for the casual reader searching for a cheap and capricious shoot-em-up, but instead offers exceptional insight into today's complex society and the new perils it presents.

Alex Hoffmann is a trained scientist, a genius for probability and mathematical predictions. For years he's used his extraordinary skills at CERN, the Geneva-based physics lab, devising ever more complex computer programs that predict particle behavior. His rather eccentric and closeted research however puts him at odds with management, who unceremoniously show him the door.

Alex is recruited by an old friend, Hugo Quarry, who's an investment guru and hedge fund manager. Alex soon finds his computer algorithms used for finance, and to great advantage. Within a few years, Alex and Hugo are billionaires and partners in the most successful hedge fund firm in the world. Alex has adjusted to the change quite readily, marrying a lovely artist and now enjoying life in a tony Geneva mansion. He's still quirky and introspective, although his pal Hugo has brought him out of his shell enough for their investment enterprise to flourish.

And then things begin to come apart. Inexplicably, Alex is mugged in his secure home by an intruder, a thief who then simply runs away without stealing anything. Unusual payments are made and purchases secured under Alex's approval but without his remembering.

Pressure at his company is certainly increasing. Alex has recently implemented the latest version of his computer hedge fund simulation package, VIXAL-4, and a group of wealthy investors is being given the Cook's tour to lure them into backing the project. Alex is uncomfortable with the publicity and begins to suspect his own stability. Having had some emotional problems in the past — what eccentric scientist has not? — Alex wonders if he's losing it for good.

THE FEAR INDEX uses the new technologies of computerized investment strategy and hedge fund management as the basis for this excellent mystery. But the novel isn't all flash and bang supercomputers nor is it clouded by pseudo-science. The characters are more important, the personalities of the protagonists more essential than the computers. Yet the lives of the humans have become inexorably intertwined with the nearly sentient computers that form the strength of today's investment industry. Together, these disparate elements combine to make a first rate modern mystery thriller.

The book isn't without flaws, both thematically and structurally. From a thematic view, writing a novel about the newest computer advances is almost impossible. Technical concepts are advancing so rapidly (which the book of course points out) that the basic tenets of the story often appear obsolete before publication date. This is inevitable and the author must be granted some leeway here.

Structurally, there are a number of foreshadowing passages, such as "He would later remember..." or "Facts would later show that...", which are unnecessary and interrupt the otherwise careful pace of the story line. There are a couple of minor subplots that are never resolved and should have been deleted outright. The denouement is also somewhat protracted.

But these are only minor stylistic points. THE FEAR INDEX is an engrossing, intelligent novel with a coherent theme of evolution and a caveat, perhaps, against reaching too far too quickly.

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