Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: Thriller: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Hutchinson, £12.99

Dr Alex Hoffmann is an American computer genius. Dismissed from his job at CERN's Large Hadron Collider project near Geneva, he joins forces with British investment banker Hugo Quarry to create Hoffman Investment Technologies, a startlingly successful and very exclusive algorithmic hedge fund. (Algorithmic trading uses very high-powered computers to automatically analyse masses of data and make buy and sell decisions in the markets, without human intervention.)

Hoffman's hedge fund each year delivers over 80pc profit to its investors. The key to the company's success is Hoffman's visionary and immensely powerful software called VIXAL-4, which uses artificial intelligence to measure the impact of one element of human emotion -- fear -- on the world's stock markets and then make trades anticipating stock volatility far more swiftly than human beings could do.

Hoffman is the quintessential introverted scientific geek. He has little interest in accumulating wealth, has few social skills, and is arrogant and dismissive of others.

For all that, he lives with his beautiful and talented artist wife Gabrielle -- who sees a childish and loveable vulnerability in him -- in a $60m house on Lake Geneva, protected by cutting-edge unbreachable electronic security.

But when mysterious noises downstairs waken him at 4am, Hoffman realises that somehow, someone has managed to get into the house, and when he angrily confronts the intruder he suffers a head injury in the scuffle.

It is the start of a waking nightmare of paranoia and violence as Hoffman realises that someone is quite literally seeking to destroy him -- someone who has total access to his passwords, his bank accounts and even his private thoughts and dreams.

Worse still, VIXAL-4 is behaving in a peculiar manner that may bankrupt his company and endanger the stability of the international financial system.

Part techno-thriller, part psychological drama, The Fear Index is as gripping a tale as anything Robert Harris, described as Britain's most bankable author, has written.

Quite different from anything he has done before, it crackles with energy and invention, and the author's obviously extensive research into the arcane world of state-of-the-art computing technology, algorithms, trading and hedge funds is dished up lightly and intelligibly. Harris is currently writing the screenplay for the film.

Myles McWeeney

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