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Looking Behind “Budapest Noir”

Whenever I discover a new city, I’m always looking for its darker corners, its seamy underbelly. Hop On-Hop Off buses don’t stop where I want to go. This is why the cover of the book in the window of the excellent Atlantisz Könyvsziget bookstore on Budapest’s Király utca jumped out at me. After I read and thoroughly enjoyed “Budapest Noir” I decided to track down its author, Vilmos Kondor.

Noir is French for “black” or “dark”. Film noir refers to a style of movie that reached its classic period in Hollywood between the early 1940s to the late 1950s. John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), which introduced America to the Austro-Hungarian actor Peter Lorre, is definitive film noir.

Noir now also encompasses a certain style of fiction, originally called “hardboiled”. Hardboiled or noir writers include the great Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

The hero of “Budapest Noir”, crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon, is in the mold of Hammett’s hero Sam Spade: a good man going down mean streets. His dogged investigation of the murder of a young woman in 1936 Budapest pits him against pornographers, gangsters, Communist cells, big business and the government itself.

It’s not surprising that “Publishers Weekly” called the book “classic noir”.

Vilmos Kondor

Born in Budapest in 1954, Kondor (pictured above) studied physics in Szeged and went on to study at the Sorbonne. He currently teaches math and physics in a high school. Before “Budapest Noir”, he had pretty much burned everything he’d written because it was “so, so bad”. He is currently finishing a short story collection and getting ready for a new novel set in 1931.

I began by asking when and why Kondor came up with the idea for “Budapest Noir”. “More than ten years ago, I was walking down Nagy Diófa utca in the Seventh. In front of an apartment block, I spotted something that looked like a body. It was just a pile of clothes. But the night was dark, the air was cold and the street was deserted so I started to wonder. What if it was a young girl and it wasn’t today but maybe 70 years earlier? Who might that girl be? Who would investigate her death? Would it be a policeman? No, maybe a journalist. I liked that. I went to our National Library, started reading newspapers from 1936 and I knew what I wanted to do and how.”

Would Kondor say the book is particularly Hungarian? “I wanted it to be specifically Hungarian while universal in its themes and bound by the rules of the genre. The characters are what make the novel so Hungarian. For instance, the grandfather who’s into making jams. The fact that Zsigmond Gordon refuses to accept defeat and believes there must be a solution to the mystery of the girl’s murder is also very Hungarian. We Hungarians believe there’s always a way. And there is.”

I asked Kondor how he did his research. “I didn’t read history books. I spent countless hours at the library reading microfilms. I read newspapers, magazines and novels from the mid-1930s. I watched movies and listened to records from that period. It was like discovering an unknown continent. I got to discover not just the setting of the novel but also my own past. You have to be aware that the attitude of socialism for 40 years was to erase the past for good.”

Great crime writing often has a hidden agenda. Is this true of “Budapest Noir”? “I didn’t set out to have another agenda, but it happened. I realized that I wanted to show that this was and is our past, not someone else’s. My other agenda, if you want to call it that, was never hidden. Or maybe it was. In plain sight.”

City of Mystery

Does Kondor think Budapest is especially noir-ish? “It is a mysterious city with those dark streets and alleys, shadows and shades, old buildings and cobblestones. I think Budapest is the most perfect setting for noir. The most noir-ish districts are the Sixth and Seventh [Erzsébetváros and Terézváros], plus parts of the Eighth [Józsefváros].”

How, I wondered, did “Budapest Noir” come to be published in English. “I had a wonderful agent named Andrew Nurnberg who believed in me,” Vilmos said. “Claire Wachtel, then my editor at HarperCollins, loved the book. It’s thanks to them that mine is the first and, so far, only Hungarian noir published in the U.S. in English.”

When I asked about Hungarian crime writers, Kondor explained that the genre is not so well established in this country.

“I think that our critics have never really embraced popular culture as a natural part of our heritage,” he told me. “So, without a proper nurturing system like you have in the U.S. or U.K. – with good publishing houses, excellent editors and well-read reviewers – the whole genre could never really blossom. And it got worse during socialism when crime writers served the system and betrayed their readers. Today, the list of Hungarian crime writers is short but it does exist. I’m thinking of László Csabai and Katalin Baráth.”

So now I’m trying to find out if the novels of Csabai and Baráth are translated into English. Fortunately, the Massolit bookstore on Nagy Diófa – the street that initially inspired “Budapest Noir” – has a decent selection of books. It’s a great excuse to go back.