I read this book for two reason. First, Mariella Frostrup said it was wondrous (Radio 4) and second, a friend in publishing said they were 'spitting mad' that Harris could turn out a 'half finished' book and have it sell by the bucket load when everyone else had to polish theirs to perfection and still didn't sell half as many.
So with that kind of bipolar recommendation, I had to have a look.
And my friend in publishing wins. Clearly Harris has reached the point of being uneditable because I wouldn't hand in a first draft with so many holes in it, so badly written and he not only hands it in, but has it published without so much as a red pen clean-up of the text. This doesn't quite make the Da Vinci Code look like Chaucer (as was once famously said of another 'literary' author) but it's not far off. And it has the same kind of ring to it as Dan Brown: good idea researched to the nth degree and then *very, very clunkily* played out on the page.
The basic premise is clever: look at hedge funds and how they cleaned up during the 2008 crash. Look at the super-computer geeks/nerds/quants and what they can do and extrapolate just a tiny bit (or maybe not?) to a computer that teaches itself how to make money better and then proceeds to do exactly that without any remorse or morals or ethics: how it drags people in its wake because if it can make $9 million in the time it takes to walk across the room and look at a computer screen, and you stand to get some of that, are you really going to stop it?
But the rest of the plot: the fear factor, in fact, is risible and so absurdly full of holes it's not worth trying to tie it together. Our 'hero' (the ultra nerd who has made the programme that is doing this) is being targetted by someone who is clearly trying to drive him mad. Or maybe he's mad in the first place and doing it to himself and doesn't know it. That cloak is trailed half way through and goes nowhere except that we find he had a nervous breakdown when at CERN (Dan Brown fans note: to sell by the bucket load, mention CERN at least 3 times a page for a bit) and has a cupboard full of antidepressants so it might be that his mysterious night visitor who clonks him on the bonce with a fire extinguisher is, in fact, him. Or then again not, because it's pretty hard to hit yourself with a fire extinguisher, so maybe he's just invited a madman into the house, given him the key codes to the super-effective security system and wants to die. And wants to be divorced from his artistic wife (why she is married to a man in advanced Assberger's is not made clear except that he gave her a house worth EU60 million. Women, evidently, do things that defy logic. Who'd have thunk it?)
In the end (WARNING, SPOILER) it's the machine wot did it. As 'research'. Really? Why? What kind of research is it doing and what has it learned? Who knows. And frankly, who cares?
Which is all very sad given that I loved 'Fatherland' and 'Archangel' and did kind of thing Robert Harris was a 'literary' thriller writer (but only if Laura Wilson and Andrew Taylor are literary thriller writers: and both are a) far more literate and b) far more thrilling) - now, he's sub par, below Dan Brown. This feels like something he crunched out between rounds of 'Angry Birds' and then slammed his editor's head on the desk when the poor infant tried to suggest the odd tweak here or there. Unless the first draft was worse than this, which is a truly terrifying thought.
I used to love Robert Harris and I still think, 'Ghost' was intelligent and clever and funny. But I'm not planning to read another in a hurry - and Mariella? Sorry, love, you just lost all credibility.