Robert Harris is no stranger to turning the high-concept thriller to literary ends. The Ghost, his previous novel, featured a cipher for Tony Blair, chewing over his time in office with a biographer who soon finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy well out of his control. Politically astute and controversial, it was also a captivating yarn of intrigue and violently defended secrets, later adapted for the screen by Harris and Roman Polanski. You could imagine Blair himself reading it on holiday.
A quietly acknowledged aspect of satire is that it may be as enjoyable for its targets as its audience. We see this in such famous examples as Tsar Nicholas I's approval of Gogol's satirical farce, The Government Inspector: "Everyone gets it in the neck, and I most of all!"
Similarly it's hard to imagine Rupert Murdoch losing sleep over the media-tycoon Bond villain of The World is Not Enough in 1999. As received wisdom has it, it's important to laugh at yourself, and what better gift for the man who has everything than a sense of humour? Entertainment is the difference between a political protest and a work of art. The Fear Index is a novel that sharply combines the lately familiar white-collar crime narrative with neo-Gothic horror. It could be read with equal relish by the Wall Street traders and the protesters beneath their windows, were they not blinded with pepper spray. Harris acknowledges the assistance of numerous asset strippers and hedge fund managers who, one imagines, were only too happy to ensure the premise remained as technically plausible as it is fantastic.
Our protagonist is named Dr Alexander Hoffman, presumably in a nod to ETA Hoffman, the German writer from the turn of the 18th century, best known for The Nutcracker (although it is the less famous Sandman with its automatons and sinister doubles that carries the telling echo here). Hoffman is a sort of über-nerd: a lead physicist working on the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the archetypal socially awkward genius. His pet project is artificial intelligence, an obsession that loses him his job, but gets him headhunted by charming toff Hugo Quarry, a City of London trader, who convinces him to turn his talents to high finance. Hoffman is already experimenting with an algorithm that trades based on the levels of fear and panic in the market at large. In Hoffman's publicity speech to potential shareholders, he points out that the Cold War, characterised by paranoia and mutually assured destruction, was also a time of relative market stability.
"The rise in market volatility, in our opinion, is a function of digitalisation, which is exaggerating human mood swings by the unprecedented dissemination of information via the internet." After eight years, a more advanced take on the fear index, an algorithm capable of undertaking research into human fears, VIXAL-4, is born and quickly makes Hoffman Investment Technologies an embarrassing amount of money.
Hoffman runs an eccentric ship: his employees - mathematical savants and their assistants - are fined for bringing any printed matter, paper or pens into the workplace, "a temple of mammon" emblazoned with the legend:
"THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL HAVE NO PAPER / THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL CARRY NO INVENTORY / THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE WILL BE ENTIRELY DIGITAL / THE COMPANY OF THE FUTURE HAS ARRIVED".
There's a certain irony in Hoffman and his employees working on equations and algorithms that then go on to trade independently - they haven't cut any deals themselves in years "like some lazy driver who had become entirely reliant on parking sensors and satellite navigation to get him around town".
We first encounter Hoffman in his €60m mansion in Geneva. He ought to be celebrating his anniversary, but someone (not his wife) has sent him a first edition of Charles Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his colleagues (he has no friends) deny all knowledge. The book's slip marks the chapter on fear. Later that night he wakes hearing noises, creeps downstairs and, having encountered a light in the kitchen and a strange pair of boots by the door, goes outside to identify whoever has managed to breach the multiple levels of security, leaving his wife Gabrielle trapped inside. Hoffman only realises this once he's seen a haunted-looking man with long grey hair methodically sharpening their knives in the kitchen.