The Fear Index and the inhumanly rich

I bought Fifty Shades of Grey today, finally, but ended up reading The Fear Index by Robert Harris instead. With a banking scandal all over the front pages, it seemed the perfect time to start on a thriller about playing the financial markets (and what happens when that goes wrong).

Dr Hoffman, who is so far the hero, or anti-hero, is a physicist living in Switzerland who runs an extremely successful hedge fund and has become the kind of rich that separates you from everybody else. When a policeman asks what his company does, he says, ‘It makes money.’ He seems put out that anyone should have the impudence to ask.

When the policeman complains that he can no longer afford to live in Switzerland but has settled in France where it is cheaper, and has to drive in across the border, every day, Hoffman thinks, why should I care? But from the reader’s point of view it’s hard not to sympathise with the policeman as he tours Hoffman’s grand but unhomely property. Especially when he reflects that he’s probably going to have to work in his retirement to make ends meet, something neither his father nor grandfather had to do (surely lots of people know that feeling – pension forecasts can be pretty disheartening.)

From the outset, something is out of kilter; something doesn’t add up, and Hoffman knows it and is afraid. Robert Harris is brilliant on the entitled hollowness of the inhumanly rich; Hoffman’s house and office are curiously blank, fortress-like spaces that are designed as an assertion of power to keep the outside out, but can’t quite manage it.

It’s like the summer house where the journalist stays in The Ghost, which is secluded and detached from the outside world to the point of being like a prison, and also unreal.  He was another lonely figure trying to figure out whether there was really anything to justify his unease. It ain’t paranoia if they’re really out to get you… and in Robert Harris novels, they usually are, though you might just survive long enough to find out why.

The first Robert Harris novel I read was Fatherland, which is a great What if? story: what if Hitler had won a war, and the Holocaust had become a secret, and someone had then found out about it? After that I wanted to read more. His books are always about power – how people with power use it to try to control what other people know, how they respond to threats to their power, and what it’s like trying to work or communicate with powerful people and hold onto your integrity (and not come to a sticky end). They’ve got a real authority. You know he knows what he’s talking about.

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