Tag Archives: thriller

The Fear Index – Robert Harris

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The Fear Index is a sci-fi thriller—or maybe not so sci-fi. The plot revolves around the hedge fund algorithm developed by a brilliant former CERN physicist who runs a phenomenally successful hedge fund based in Geneva. Dr. Alex Hoffmann’s brainchild, VIXAL-4, scans astonishing amounts of Internet data including the “fear index,” a measure of the volatility of market fluctuations in response to fear trigger words in the media. The fear index is an excellent tool for predicting gains and losses in the market. The computer program is so advanced that it is a kind of artificial intelligence that continually becomes more efficient—you can see where this is going.

Anyway, an odd and near-deadly break-in at the Hoffmann gated estate results in Hoffmann’s head taking a serious bashing and an almost retired cop poking around in his personal and hedge fund business. Hoffmann saw the assailant and now he glimpses the man everywhere, and is afraid he may be going crazy. A first edition of a Darwin book arrives at his home although he claims not to have purchased it. In the book is an early photograph of a test subject that looks uncannily like the attacker. The Amsterdam bookseller’s records show Hoffmann emailed an order and transferred funds from a personal bank account he didn’t know he had in the Cayman Islands.

With a headful of stitches and a doctor’s futile admonition to remain in the hospital under observation for 24 hours, Hoffmann goes to the office with his partner, the charming and voluble public “face” of the firm, Hugo Quarry. The two partners are scheduled to present their latest software iteration to favored investors in hopes of raising a billion or so for increased investment. Gabrielle, Hoffman’s wife, collects pieces from her studio at home for the opening of her first gallery exhibit and worries about what is happening to her marriage and her life. When Hoffmann finally makes it to the champagne launch at the gallery, an anonymous buyer wires funds to acquire every single piece of Gabrielle’s work, unheard of and highly suspect for an emerging artist. She confronts Hoffmann, who denies it, and is furious.

And so it goes. Stranger and stranger occurrences pile up over the day as the market and the hedge fund both begin to act oddly. The fund unloads shares of an airline that looks healthy hours before a catastrophic plane crash that sends its stocks plummeting. The algorithm steadily erodes the “hedge” that protects the fund from devastating losses but the fund is making multiple millions of dollars and Quarry is loathe to override the computer system to decrease risk. Hoffmann takes off in search of his assailant and Gabrielle is confronted with shocking secrets about the man she has been married to for seven years.

The Fear Index is a very taut, anxiety-producing novel with a very accessible amount of detail about how investing and markets work. It operates in the land of the ethers—extremely high wealth, extremely high risk, way out there science and a boatload of people at various stops on the autism spectrum. You can read it in one sitting and you might because it is hard to put down. As the financial world spins out of control and Hoffmann grows ever more paranoid, the evil mastermind of the international threat becomes harder to pin down. Harris’s book is scary—you may not have personal billions at risk but, in the world of VIXAL-4, your whole world is at risk of implosion and there isn’t a single thing you could ever do to prevent it.     

The Fear Index   Robert Harris | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

Orpheus Lost – Janette Turner Hospital

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In Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital turns the story of Orpheus and Euridice on its head. This time it’s Orpheus who goes missing and Euridice who descends into the underworld to find him.

Leela is a motherless southerner who escapes to Boston from her very small town through her mathematical genius. She leaves behind a slightly cracked Pentecostal father, the sister born as their mother died in childbirth, and a lifelong best friend, a boy named Cobb whose mother committed suicide and whose father has been prone to drunken, violent rages since his return from the Vietnam war.

Mishka is a very eccentric Australian from a family of refugees who escaped the Nazi death camps and settled in the rainforest. Music is the center of their broken lives, as it was in a cultured, prosperous existence before Hitler. Mishka grows up playing the violin and believing his unknown father is dead. Music propels him to Boston where he takes up the oud, a sort of Persian lute, and plays his violin deep underground in the subway. When Leela hears the heartbreaking lament from Orfeo ed Euridice, she is hypnotized and she and Mishka become lovers.

As Leela works on a post-doc research proposal, Boston is hit with a series of terrorist attacks and Mishka grows increasingly anxious and begins staying away from the apartment. Then Leela is picked up for questioning by a government-contracted security firm and interrogated for hours in a locked room—by an emotionally brutal and calculating Cobb. Mishka may be linked to a subway bombing—his father may be alive in Beirut and is also suspected of being a terrorist mastermind. Mishka disappears and Leela, unmoored in this landscape of alien information, descends into hell to find him—and the truth.

Orpheus Lost is a brilliant and beautifully written thriller. The emotional entanglements of the characters are, at first, very disturbing but quickly draw you into a murky realm where music is both a death sentence and the only hope. The story is strongly anti-war, anti-violence and anti-fairytale. Mishka’s innocence leads him into depths he can’t manage. If Leela gives into doubt, she will lose him forever.

Hell is made in the hearts of people damaged by an unforgiving world. The myth of Orpheus is an ancient and powerful story, reworked in this novel with contemporary events that simply underscore what has always been true—our heroes, heroines, lovers and lost souls are flawed and fragile. But they are valiant and resilient, too. The music is an audible expression of love and longing. The courage that will prevail is an unblinking gaze upon painful truths–and a stubborn refusal to look back.

Orpheus Lost: A Novel   Janette Turner Hospital | W. W. Norton & Company  2007