The fact that I managed to get through Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir in well under 36 hours after receiving it should not be seen as in any way a negative sign. Quite the opposite: it was an easy read in the sense that it was well paced, kept the reader moving ahead at an agreeable (not too hectic) pace, did not raise any particular problems and, above all held the interest literally to the very end.
It may well be that (some) Hungarian critics regard Budapest Noir the first truly “noir” Hungarian thriller, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. It is not a James Ellroy, more something in the older mould: Maigret, say, or Perry Mason, at most a Philip Marlowe, say, but none the worse for that. It is not a police procedural, and the main figure (Zsigmond Gordon) is not even a private dick but a journalist; admittedly a journalist who covers crime stories and who began his career in the USA working as such for a newspaper serving the Hungarian community in Philadelphia, but the plot doesn’t get bogged down in the mechanics of the how, or even who did it, or who set it up. These are never lost sight of, but the surprise at the end (and there is one) is not that so much as the way the plot ends on a note of tolerable justice done all round. The baddies (one or two of them anyway) get what they deserve.
This is not meant to damn the book with faint praise: merely to warn that the book is not more than it pretends to be: it is not high literature, nor particularly chilling by UK-USA crime writing standards, no unusual plot devices, no highly distinctive registers or social strata involved. Although the crime at the centre of the book—the evident murder on a Budapest inner-city street of a (fictional) young woman of presumably Jewish background, who seems to be working as a prostitute—occurs on the night of Tuesday 6 October 1936, the same day that the death was announced historically very real (and very right-wing and anti-Semitic) prime minister, Gyula Gömbös, dies in a sanatorium in Munich where he had been since early September on account of his failing health. But the reader is not expected to have any particular knowledge of the background as the writer fairly carefully and unobtrusively manages to tease out the implications as the story unfolds. So there is no need for the reader to have taken a degree in history of pre-WWII history or religious studies: just keep their wits about them.
Having said that, Kondor manages to pack a surprising amount of background on the political feel of mid-1930s Hungary and the ever-tighter ties it was developing with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Kondor also clearly has English readers in mind, as he carefully works in references to e.g. Penguin Books (we learn early on (p. 28) they have made a job offer to Gordon’s woman-friend, Krisztina Eckhardt, who is from the German (Saxon) ethnic minority of Transylvania and said to have learnt design at the Bauhaus, and by the end she accepts it), which were indeed formed in 1935 and, if it sounds unlikely that anyone in Budapest would have any awareness of its existence, then one clearly has no concept of just what a huge change it brought to publishing within a very short space of time (within two years they had published over 100 titles!), as well as Lord Beaverbrook (a staunch, very pro-Hungarian advocate of revision of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which set out the (highly unfavourable) peace conditions. But there is no preaching, just the information that this was in the background, which readers are left to choose whether they wish to follow up on (the details are not essential to the story).
The public figures who are named are all genuine and can be fairly readily checked on-line (Wikipedia) as well as in fairly readily attainable traditional textbooks (e.g. Jörg K Hoensch’s A History of Modern Hungary 1867-1994, 2nd edn 1996) if one so chooses. The geography of Budapest is also very real (including street names of the day such as Adolf Hitler Square which have obviously been renamed over the intervening 70-odd years), as is the one excursion outside Budapest (to the Palace Hotel in Lillafüred) that is made towards the end of the book (end of Chapter 7-8), but an intimate knowledge is not required: again the author just uses the names to add authenticity to the plot.
What one has, then is a fairly straight-ahead crime story that happens to be set (mainly) in Budapest with a plot that spans little more than 4-5 days either side of Saturday 11 October, which is the day Gömbös was buried in Budapest after a full state funeral at which the head of state, Regent Miklós (Nicolas) Horthy and representatives of close allies such as Germany (Hermann Goering) were present. It is perhaps interesting to note that it is the first book by an author who will be 54 this year, studied chemical engineering at the Sorbonne, and is currently a teacher of mathematics and physics at a high school in the western Hungarian city of Sopron, but that has no bearing on the fact that it is a well-written book that one can easily read in a weekend, and finish with the feeling that the time was pleasantly spent.
And, incidentally, about the only little point in the story that I bridled at slightly was the idea that the main protagonist’s grandpa would be making rhubarb and grape jam in October; even at Tesco’s in Hungary there is no way that you would get these in October, and I don’t think there were too many tennis racquets on show in the streets (p. 99), but then why not?
Tags: Vilmos Kondor