From Nazis (Fatherland) to Ancient Rome (Pompeii, Imperium, Lustrum) Robert Harris has cornered the market in gripping, mostly historical, thrillers
Here is an author who truly deserves the epithet "bestselling": his worldwide sales are measured in the millions, and his books have been translated into 37 languages. Harris' latest thriller The Fear Index (out now) is something of a departure. It is his first contemporary novel since The Ghost (which has sold more than half a million copies through BookScan since publication in 2006), and is set over the course of a single day in the dizzyingly competitive world of high finance. The film rights have already been sold to Fox, and Harris will shortly begin work on the screenplay.
The Fear Index centres around Dr Alex Hoffman, a former CERN physicist turned spectacularly successful hedge fund manager. Hoffman has developed a secret system of computer algorithms to trade on the world's financial markets, and his hedge fund enables him to live in a $60m house in Geneva with his artist wife. But early one morning an intruder manages to breach the house's considerable security and attacks him. It's the first in an extraordinary chain of events, and over the course of the novel Hoffman makes increasingly desperate efforts to find out who is trying to destroy him. Meanwhile, the hedge fund's computers continue to trade in the world's financial markets, which are heading for collapse.
The financial world setting was completely new to Harris, necessitating "an awful lot" of research. As so often with Harris' books, the reader finishes the book feeling considerably more informed than when they started. "As a novelist I quite like—I suppose because I was a journalist—to go into worlds and discover new things about them, and to try and take the reader into a world in a procedural way. So you're on the shoulders of people who are doing their jobs, be it an aqueduct engineer [the Cicero trilogy] or a code-breaker [Enigma], or in this case an algorithmic hedge fund manager."
Key to his research—and the novel—was the rise of the geeky scientist in the world of hedge funds. It was all a far cry from Oliver Stone's "Wall Street", Harris discovered. "It was an absolute eye-opener for me; to go into these hedge funds and find that the people [working] there were all PhDs.
"I felt I was at the cutting edge and I felt, and I may be wrong, that nowhere in fiction—either in films or in novels—has anyone really written about how the financial world is ticking. Of course there have been novels set in hedge funds, but . . . [no] novel that shows it as it really is—which is so dependent on science; physicists and mathematicians and computer programmers."
Dr Hoffman's genius was in developing algorithms to power the hedge fund and, without wanting to give too much away about the plot, it is the computers that are at the heart of the novel. The Fear Index takes place in Geneva—a financial capital of course, but the setting is more than just a nod to Frankenstein. Like Mary Shelley's novel, The Fear Index is a tale of scientific hubris, says Harris, about a brilliant man who recklessly pursues a goal to the point where it becomes "immensely destructive".
The Fear Index is a sort of 21st-century Frankenstein, or "gothic realism" as Harris prefers to describe it: "The gothic novel is generally about the hinterland between human beings and the other, the supernatural. But our hinterland, in quite a realistic way, is now between being human and being a machine."
I wonder if it ever feels as though he's taking a risk with his readership; to move from the hugely successful historical thrillers (he hopes to conclude the Cicero trilogy next year with Dictator) to The Fear Index? "I think there may well be an element of risk commercially, but one can only write what one wants to write. It would probably [have been] far more sensible of me commercially to stick to rewriting Fatherland, but I'm very glad that I didn't."
The big leap, he thinks, was to go from Archangel (Stalin's legacy in modern day Russia) to Pompeii: "That was quite a worrying thing to do commercially, but once I'd taken that leap I knew then I could write about anything. If you can go from Stalin to Ancient Rome and waterways, you're liberated."
The Fear Index by Robert Harris is out now, published by Hutchinson.