Monday, March 5, 2012

Budapest Noir, by Vilmos Kondor

Harper, 2012
originally published as Budapest Noir, 2008
translated by Paul Olchváry
291 pp
(trade paper ed.)

Budapest Noir  is currently the only work of crime fiction from Hungary on my bookshelves; actually, the only modern Hungarian crime fiction in translation that I'm aware of, although I hope Harper will see fit to publish the rest of this series at some point.   It is also the author's first published novel, and the first of six planned installments of the Budapest Noir series featuring main character crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon.  The novel also works well as historical fiction, offering a glimpse into Hungary's political and social issues between the two world wars.  It is a dark and twisted story, with interesting characters, a well-evoked sense of place, and a good mystery at its core.

The year is 1936.  Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, who had once boasted to Hermann Göring  that he would "reshape Hungary within two years and would preside over the new state as its dictator" by applying Germany's fascist principles, has just died, and all of the local newspapers are out in force to cover the funeral.  The reporter from the Evening, Zsigmond Gordon, is one of the reporters assigned to this task, but as the story opens, he is working on a story involving a detective accused of accepting a bribe from a stock exchange agent who'd reported being swindled out of  a large sum of money. Gordon doesn't believe in the detective's guilt, and he drops in on his friend and contact Chief Inspector Vladimir Gellért of the police to try to get more information for his story.  Gellért is on duty, involved in handling security and other preparations for the state funeral, and Gordon decides to wait for him in his office.  He sits at the Inspector's desk, where a drawer has been left open. As Gordon looks in the open drawer, he sees a file folder with a photograph sticking out of one edge.  There are actually two photos of the same young woman, one of them completely nude except for a pair of shoes, with the girl wearing a "forlorn  and flirtatious" expression, with a touch of defiance and even sadness in her eyes.  He notices that she has a small birthmark under her left arm. Later, after he returns to his office at the newspaper, he receives a call from one of his police contacts, who tells him that a young girl has been found dead in the local red-light district.  He has the opportunity for a scoop so travels to the crime scene, where the police tell him that all they have to go on is a few shreds of paper and a "Jewish book" on the girl; otherwise, there is absolutely nothing to identify her.  When Gordon gets a chance, he takes a look at the body, and to his great surprise, it's the same girl from the photos in the Inspector's office.  Now there are a multitude of questions to be asked and answered: Who was this woman? Why did the Inspector have her photos in his desk before the crime was even reported? Why, when Zsigmond starts taking a deep interest in this crime, are people trying to stop him from getting anywhere on the case and even going so far as to threaten his girlfriend to keep him away? 

In answering these questions, the author takes his protagonist from the coffee shops and dark alleys of Budapest up into the wooded alp-like mountains and lakes of Hungary in search of the truth.  He also takes his readers into the Hungary of the 1930s, where an air of uncertainty hovers over its people as they wait to see which direction the new government will take and with whom its leaders will side internationally.  There's a secret state security commando unit in place under the security minister, Schweinitzer, who will eventually become the head of the Political Police, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head as many businessmen are involved in trade with Hitler's Germany and are reading the portents of the future to come in terms of making their fortunes; as readers, we already know what's going to happen so there is a kind of pall hanging over the story as the characters discuss the possibilities for Hungary's future. 

The main character, Zsigmond Gordon, is as noted above, a crime reporter with close police contacts. His girlfriend, Krisztina, is an illustrator and has been offered a job with Penguin in London, and is waffling about whether or not to take it. She doesn't understand why Gordon is involved in the girl's death; after all, he is just a reporter and he shouldn't be doing the job of the police.  Gordon's father, a retired physician, spends his days concocting various jams, but also has contacts of his own and Gordon often takes advantage of them in his reporting. Zsigmond is not easily frightened, and sticks to a story like glue.  He understands that the story of the dead girl is something he won't be able to write about, but he sticks with it because he also knows he wouldn't be able to look himself in the mirror if he didn't try to do something about it.   There are many shady characters in the book as well; the murderer is one of the most despicable excuses for a human being I've encountered in a crime novel so far. 

The overall tone of Budapest Noir is just that -- noir -- in its connotation of dark or black. There are a few humorous moments but these are rare, as the author focuses on the darkness invading the country and that in the souls of some of his characters.  As a mystery-series opener, it's very good; there is only one section dealing with boxing where there's a lag of any sorts and I skimmed through it quickly to get back to the main action. That's probably a personal thing -- I don't happen to like physical contact sports -- but that section does turn out to be relevant later.  And there's one expression I questioned in terms of translation and anachronism: did the expression "a light bulb went off in your head" really exist in the 1930s? One more thing: the Hungarian word for greeting women is "Csókolom"; and while it is short for the phrase meaning "I kiss your hand," it's usually translated as just "Hello."  Here it is translated out in the full "I kiss your hand," which is awkward English.  Otherwise, I found no issue with the translation.   I found the historical value on par with the crime element in this novel -- not too overdone in terms of period detail like some other works of historical crime fiction, but at the same time it's very obvious that the author has done a great deal of research.  This novel is definitely not for fans of cozy fare, nor is it at all uplifting at the end -- in fact, it is quite sad in a way.  Another thing -- you don't have to know anything about Hungary's interwar-period history to feel comfortable with this book.  It helps, but the author provides enough information via his characters so that you won't feel lost. 

I'd recommend it to readers of crime fiction who like their mystery and mayhem more on the intelligent side rather than what I like to call the "gimmicky serial killer" fare; readers of historical fiction, especially regarding Europe during this time, will also like it.  I'll look forward to the next book and just hope hope hope that some American publisher will pick it up soon.   Budapest Noir is a good first installment of a mystery series, and I don't often say that about a first novel.

crime fiction from Hungary


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for your comment -- I've discovered that good books tend to make review writing easy. And this is definitely a good book!

    2. Yeah well, you're killing me with all terrific reviews (both here and Goodreads) and a never-ending stack of books I now really want to read.

  2. I know. It's terrible -- I don't have an unlimited supply of money or time, so I have to pick and choose. The crime fiction I've been reading this year has mainly come from the list of books eligible for this year's International Dagger award, so blame it on Karen at Eurocrime for posting the list!


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