Having devoured Adam LeBor’s gripping and atmospheric crime thrillers “District VIII” and “Kossuth Square”, I had hoped we’d rendezvous in a dive somewhere on Budapest’s meanest streets. Instead, we meet at noon in a squeaky-clean Café Frei in Obuda. Rather than rub shoulders with villainous bruisers, I sit next to a large plastic ape.
Published in 2017, “District VIII” is LeBor’s first crime novel to feature Gypsy cop Balthazar Kovacs. I’ve just finished “Kossuth Square” (the second in what LeBor is calling the Danube Blues series), named for the square in which the Hungarian Parliament Building sits.
This came out in April of this year and was selected crime Book of the Month by a critic for The Times. The Daily Mail said of “Kossuth Square” that it is: “An elegant, atmospheric tale that twists and surprises at every turn.”
LeBor is also the author of conspiracy thriller “The Budapest Protocol” (2013), set in 1944, and several non-fiction works. Reviewing this book in The Times, Kate Saunders wrote “LeBor is a distinguished writer of nonfiction and his first novel shows that he’s just as good at making it up.”
Saunders nails a key element of what made me inhale LeBor’s Budapest fiction. No matter what’s happening with the plot, the milieu his books describe feels utterly believable, even to someone with my superficial knowledge of Budapest.
I was curious as to how LeBor, a fit-looking character in his late 50s with a seasoned journalist’s sharp eyes, had arrived in Budapest in the first place.
“I came here in 1991 to be a foreign correspondent,” he tells me. “I was working at The Independent newspaper on the home desk and it was boring. I could see all the action was on the foreign desk. I told them I wanted to be a foreign correspondent and they said they needed someone in Budapest. I thought that if things went wrong, I could always go home but I fell in love with the city and stayed. It was an interesting time to be in Hungary, in a region on the cusp of changing from one system to another. I travelled a lot, covering Poland, Czechoslovakia and what was then Yugoslavia. Then I married a Hungarian and had a family here.”
LeBor came to Budapest at the time of what is described in “Kossuth Square” as vadkapitalizmus or “wild capitalism”. How has the city changed since then? “It’s become Westernized. When I came here, if you couldn’t speak Hungarian, it was hard to operate. The city had also been sealed off for about 40 years. I remember the excitement when the first Okay Italia restaurant opened, and they had proper pesto sauce.”
Would LeBor say the changes are for the better? “Here’s an example of how I feel about the way Budapest has changed. When I first went to the Great Synagogue on Dob Utca in 1990 it was very dilapidated. You could see all the rusty nameplates on the benches. I’d look at them and wonder what happened to the people. Did they still go to the Synagogue or were they deported, taken away? Now the Synagogue has been done up it’s beautiful but some of the historic atmosphere has been lost. That’s something you can say about Budapest in general. Each time it’s restored it loses a little bit of its atmosphere. But, of course, a city should be restored. You can’t just let it crumble away.”
“District VIII” and “Kossuth Square” are set in the summer of 2015 when, as The Guardian newspaper put it at the time, “a refugee camp took shocking shape in the heart of a European capital”.
“Leaving aside the obviously terrible humanitarian aspect, Keleti was an absolute godsend for me as a writer,” LeBor says. “I thought, this is an epoch-making event I’m seeing here and it’s unfolding five metro stops away from me. All the borders have collapsed. No-one’s in charge. Hundreds of thousands of people are marching around Europe with no papers or false papers. And nobody knows who they are. I’m not going to get better than that.”
Although Keleti provided the spark, LeBor had been circling around a contemporary crime novel set in Budapest for some time.
“After my first thriller, “The Budapest Protocol”, I thought I’d like to do something much more ambitious; a detective series where the links between characters are unpeeled over time. I met some Gypsy [Roma] police officers at a reception at the British Embassy a few years ago and I thought their stories were interesting. Some said their families didn’t want them to become policemen. Other non-Gypsy policemen could be wary of them because of previous experiences with the Gypsy community. I realized that if I made my central character a Gypsy cop I had inner conflict, which you need.”
Not that I know the reality but the Roma element to the stories feels authentic. “I’d written several articles about Gypsy life in Budapest and Hungary,” LeBor tells me. “I spent some time out on patrol with the police officers and did some research into the social codes of Gypsy society and the role of women. But the rest I made up. The characters are all products of my imagination.”
Which leads me to my final question: whether I could use LeBor’s books as a rough guide to Budapest? I’d already discovered that Kádár, the Jewish restaurant on Klauzál Square does exist. What about the Tito Grill, the “Balkan restaurant on Rákóczi Square” mentioned in both books, is that real?
LeBor smiles. “No,” he says.
“District VIII” and “Kossuth Square” are available at Bestsellers bookshop on October 6 Budapest. LeBor is currently writing book three of the series, with the working title of “Margaret Bridge”. The U.K. television rights to the series have been sold. Lebor’s website is www.adamlebor.com.