The inexorable ascent of Robert Harris as one of the UK's most important popular novelists has been an unusual phenomenon, quite unlike the career path of most of his peers.
His breakthrough book was, of course, the powerful Fatherland in 1992 (with its dark alternative view of history, in which Germany was the winning nation in the Second World War), and from that time forwards, a sequence of striking and genre-bending novels followed: Archangel, Enigma and the much-acclaimed The Ghost, memorably filmed by Roman Polanski.
The thriller may be his natural home, but Harris has shown an immense skill in dealing with historical subjects and the past: one of his most impressive novels was the massive and ambitious Pompeii. Lustrum was another historical novel that cannily utilised elements of the thriller but attempted something far more challenging than most proponents of that field aim for.
The new book, The Fear Index, has been gleaning the kind of attention most of his writing confreres can only wistfully dream about. Dr Alex Hoffman is a scientist – a genuinely visionary character who can create from computer software the equivalent of what Mahler could spin from the staves on a sheet of music paper. Hoffman’s genius has been to create a groundbreaking form of artificial intelligence, and, aided by his partner, an investment banker, he has found a way of reading human emotions, facilitating a way of predicting movement in the financial markets. His Geneva hedge fund has already produced billions in profit. But everything begins to go grimly wrong when Hoffman, lying asleep with his wife, is unaware of an intruder who has managed to get past the security of their luxurious lake house and sets in motion a nightmare which (in its vaunting paranoia) makes Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four look like a fairy story.
In fact, Orwell's influence on this characteristically efficient novel is but one element in the heady brew: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may similarly be detected (in the form of a creation that achieves autonomy and ends up threatening its creator), and perhaps there is a hint of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s malign computer HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a given Fatherland dealt in a kind of alternative history (the speciality of such SF writers as Philip K Dick) - but does Harris consider himself (on occasion) a science fiction writer?
When I meet up with Harris in the Langham Hotel, this is one of the questions I'm planning to ask him. I also need to request a memory jog: which was the book launch I first met him at – when I was introduced to a fresh-faced young politician called Tony Blair?
"Oh, that would have been the Fatherland launch in 1992," replies Harris, having welcomed me into the hidden alcove where he is sipping afternoon coffee as a pianist riffs on Cole Porter. "That does seem a while ago, doesn’t it? ... Both of our lives – Tony Blair’s and mine -- have changed radically since then!"
The lure of politics
Having made his mark as one of the finest thriller writers at work in Britain, Harris then wrote the highly accomplished Archangel ("Frankly," he tells me, "that is the book of mine I am most proud of") before embarking upon the sequence of Ancient Rome-set novels (including Pompeii and Lustrum), which made it appear – at the time -- that his new métier was to be the historical novel.
In Lustrum, we had the mechanics of the thriller applied to pre-Christian Rome, with keenly persuasive results. The city is about to claim a vast empire, and seven driven individuals are jousting for power. These include the consul Cicero, his implacable younger rival Caesar and the celebrated general Pompey. The power struggles between these real-life historical figures - their alliances, their conflicts, their passions - are rendered with the colour and panache which are Harris’s trademarks.
"It was never really my plan to be a historical novelist," says Harris. "To some degree, I've always been a political writer, but I wanted to utilise my experience of politics to write contemporary novels dealing with power – and its abuse. It seemed to me the best way to address the subject, i.e. through the prism of history. And if people wanted to draw modern conclusions (which they did), that seemed to be a more fruitful way of dealing with the power impulse - the impulse that (for better or for worse) is still at the heart of most political endeavour.’
Harris, of course, was well known as an insider of the Blair-era Labour Party, and a man well aware of the strategies of the last government. But these days he is less happy to be identified with one political party – and perhaps, he always preferred to keep a distance.
"It simply doesn't interest me to be seen as an adjunct of any one political party," he says. "A novelist, I think, is obliged to maintain a certain distance from the subject of politics, however strongly one feels, and I've always tried to maintain that distance - more so than ever these days."
So -- did Harris spot the messianic strain in Tony Blair before it was given full rein?
"I wouldn't say that exactly," he replies wryly. "But one did detect a sense of a 'mission' in the religious sense – in which one could detect the feeling that he felt “chosen” to do certain things. But other aspects of his personality were equally interesting – he is a remarkable mixture."
Which of course, brings us to the Tony Blair figure in Harris’s astonishingly successful novel The Ghost, the ex-prime minister of England in danger of being arraigned for war crimes. In the Roman Polanski film adaptation (co-written by Harris and the director), the charm (and slipperiness) of the character is perfectly encapsulated by Pierce Brosnan. Polanski was originally slated to film Harris's novel Pompeii, a project which never came to fruition, but it seemed that Harris enjoyed a rare friction-free relationship with the volatile director – was that the case?
"Roman and I never had a cross word in all the time we were together," Harris smiles. "He's famous for being remarkably caustic with actors (and certainly with his actresses), but he is a very bright man with a notable respect for writers – many of his films display his love of the written word, and on The Ghost he had the source available to him, i.e. myself, during the making of the film, and he made the most of it. And seemed to enjoy it!"
The pianist in the Palm Court restaurant at the Langham Hotel has moved on from a bossa nova medley to ‘Then I'll be tired of you’. One thing, however, that Harris is not displaying is the slightest sign of fatigue over his punishing publicity schedule for The Fear Index, which has enjoyed blanket coverage in the press (along with almost unanimously good reviews). Surely Harris –with his assured reputation – has no need to put himself through such hoops with each new book?
He smiles again. "Actually, I enjoy it. Do you want to know why? Yes, there may be a host of interviews to do, but they are meetings with journalists – like the one we are having now. And that is a profession I am particularly fond of, whatever low esteem the breed is held in out in the wider world. I still see myself as a journalist, however many novels I write – and I can still remember that working with the wonderful journos Alan Watkins and Anthony Howard seemed to be the apogee of my career at the time – what more could one want? And I’ve been lucky that there has been a second act for me."
But is Robert Harris (I finally ask him) a sometime science fiction writer? The alternative history in Fatherland, the non-human algorithmic menace in The Fear Index?
"No, not really, although it might be said that I used those elements when they were grist to my mill. And as for The Fear Index, with the world's financial systems plunged into disarray by the finessing of some suspect computer programs (along with human venality and stupidity) – well, that's not science fiction at all, is it? Would that it were!"
The Fear Index by Robert Harris is published by Hutchinson