Silhouetted Arches Framing Hungarian Parliament Building. Picture credit: Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images

Our man in Hungary

The past is never very far away in Adam LeBor’s new thriller

Artillery Row Books

After Berlin, there can be no city better suited to the genre of noir literature than Budapest, a cultural crossroads steeped in imperial decay, the ghosts of Nazism and Communism, not to mention more the recent shadows of populism and endemic corruption. 

The very architecture, with its grand Hapsburg era buildings and Austro-Hungarian facades intercut with winding alleyways, suggests a labyrinthine heart beating darkly beneath the modern capital city. 

If Hungarian Noir exists, then its natural inhabitant is Detective Balthazar Kovacs — Tazi to his friends — who is the creation of Adam LeBor, a one-time Budapest resident and former foreign correspondent. LeBor has already made good use of his knowledge of the city’s culture and geography in two previous thrillers that explored the criminal underworld of Budapest, the influx of refugees and rise of populism. In this, the third in his Danube Blues trilogy, he turns his focus onto Hungary’s Nazi past and the experience of the country’s Jews that still reverberates today. Although the country was already strongly anti-semitic in the early years of the war, after the German occupation in 1944, more than 400,000 Jews, with the assistance of Arrow Cross, the Hungarian Nazi arm, were deported, most of them to Auschwitz.  

In Europe there are never enough coffee shops to bury the past

LeBor’s choice of a gypsy detective is inspired. Detective Kovacs comes bundled with the standard noir detective accessories — an ex-wife turned lesbian, a son he doesn’t see often enough, and a complicated love life. Yet his outsider status is further enhanced by his Roma gypsy background, which alienates him from mainstream society, and throws up all kinds of family disharmony. Like the Jews, the Roma gypsies faced ruthless Nazi persecution and around 28,000 were deported to their deaths. Today, Budapest’s Roma minority operate by their own laws, and they take a poor view of those in their community who choose to live outside. Having been already ostracised by his family for choosing university over a career in the family brothel business, Kovacs courts further outrage by becoming a policeman.   

Adam Lebor, Dohany Street, (Head of Zeus, £18.99)

It is January 2016. The Danube is grey and half-frozen, and the Israeli Prime Minister is due to make a state visit. Kovacs is summoned by his aunt because her neighbour has gone mysteriously missing. Elad Harrari is an Israeli historian who had been working in the archives of the city museum when he vanished, leaving only a memory stick hidden in the bathroom. As Kovacs probes his disappearance, he discovers that Harrari was busy investigating the fate of the assets of the Hungarian Jews murdered in the Holocaust. Clearly his research was raising the alarm at one of the country’s most powerful companies, Nationwide. 

The plot unspools against a city backdrop of lawlessness, demonstrations and violent attacks, some apparently funded by shadowy forces. The dysfunction goes right to the top. Reka Bardossy, the female Prime Minister, has been filmed killing an assailant — pleasingly with the heel of a Louboutin shoe — and a newspaper has video footage. Inevitably Kovacs finds himself followed and threatened with violence. 

The pleasure of LeBor’s trilogy has been the chance to explore the deep geography, history and culture of Budapest so that the city almost becomes a character in its own right, and each novel has taken a different district as its focus. Dohany Street is in the Jewish quarter of District VII, the site of the Moorish inspired Great Synagogue, which like everywhere else, has been subject to gentrification. The former Jewish ghetto of Kiraly Street is now “hipster central”, the province of skateboarders, vegan restaurants and trendy coffee bars offering cappuccinos, rather than Kovacs’ own favourite brew, a traditional cheap, sludgy concoction which reminds him of his childhood.

But in Europe there are never enough coffee shops to bury the past. Soon enough, the dark era of wartime rises to the surface. As Kovacs tells one high profile villain, “History is walking around everywhere. It’s asking what you did when they came for your neighbours and how you got those nice silver candlesticks.”

LeBor provides a welcome insight into a country too little explored in modern fiction

As a journalist whose previous work has delved into a gamut of financial malpractice from Nazi looting, to the Swiss Bank for International Settlements and the Bernie Madoff investment scandal, LeBor is perfectly placed to unspool a labyrinthine plot about stolen assets and historical betrayals. Yet he also devotes more time to the complexities of human relationships that might be expected in a noirish thriller. The relationships between Kovacs and his family are sensitively drawn and there are sharp pieces of observation, such as when Zsuzsa Barcsy, a young female journalist downloading an illicit computer file in the office, manages to distract her boss by getting him to mansplain the cappuccino machine. “Roland went through a long, detailed explanation about steam, pressure, milk froth, type of grind and beans.”

At times, like the city’s own backstreets, the narrative becomes convoluted, distracted by sharp turns and the sheer complexity of detail. LeBor’s journalistic urge to lift stones, coupled with his awareness of the maze of information and connections that make up high level financial crime, are central to his fiction. Yet this same skill makes for dense plot lines and a proliferation of characters that requires occasional rereading to keep up.  

Too often Hungary is present in western minds as a troubled state riddled with organised crime and surrounded by complicated neighbours. To see it afresh as a place rich in history and churning with politics, is a significant achievement, and Adam LeBor provides a welcome insight into a country too little explored in modern fiction. 

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