“The Fear Index”
By Robert Harris
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95

Let it never again be said that high finance is boring. With a satirist’s eye for detail and a note-perfect instinct for pacing, Robert Harris brings the Geneva banking scene to ominous life in his twisty new thriller “The Fear Index,” its virtues somewhat mitigated by the problem that, within about 10 pages, the identity of the villain will no longer be a mystery to most readers, though it remains hidden from the main characters until the last few chapters.

This doesn’t seem to be the way Harris has planned it, but even the jacket copy manages to give away most of the game. It’s hard to come up with a synopsis that doesn’t at least hint loudly at the story’s resolution, so I’m not going to try. Harris’ hero is Alex Hoffmann, a hedge-fund manager with a background in what he calls “machine reasoning” — artificial intelligence — who has created an algorithm that predicts the behavior of the markets and automatically trades online; it makes billions upon billions for the indifferent Hoffmann and his greedy partner, Hugo Quarry.

Quarry, by the way, is a little masterpiece of banking industry satire all by himself. “He had a first in politics, philosophy and economics from Oxford,” writes Harris gleefully, “an ex-wife and three children safely stowed in a gloomy Lutyens mansion in a drizzled fold of Surrey, and a ski chalet in Chamonix where he went in winter with whoever happened to be his girlfriend that weekend: an interchangeable sequence of clever, beautiful, undernourished females who were always discarded before there was any sign of gynaecologists or lawyers.”

The story begins with Hoffmann’s receiving an expensive Darwin first edition in the mail from a website he doesn’t remember patronizing, then going to bed only to find that an intruder has somehow managed to gain entrance to his house, even though only he and a few trusted associates have the codes to the gates. Soon thereafter, he discovers a bank account in his name that he doesn’t remember creating. At this point, if you do not at least suspect what is going on, then perhaps reading mysteries is not for you.

Hoffmann receives a blow to the head during his confrontation with the intruder, prompting Quarry to worry that his tales of invisible bank accounts and fictional transactions are the result of brain trauma.

Action moviemaker Paul Greengrass (who has optioned the novel) is thanked in the acknowledgments; it’s easy to see why. The climax of “The Fear Index” is so perfectly paced it should be read with a bag of popcorn.

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