Saturday, March 12, 2016

European RC #3

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Budapest Noir - Vilmos Kondor

When “noir” is in title, I can’t help but have expectations. Dark story, surprising twists, thugs, smoking, adult beverages, a tough-talking detective. This mystery includes these attractions, but the investigative reporter protagonist is excessively self-controlled, mordant, a stereotypically Hungarian Gloomy Gus.  I felt this story was so-so -- a good-enough representative of the “Europe between the wars” genre that has been so popularized by Alan Furst. But remember the dark plot clearly in a couple of months? I doubt it.

The main character is crime reporter Zsigmond Gordon. The authorities are trying to sweep a prostitute's killing under the carpet, but Gordon becomes interested in the woman’s past, the events that lead up to her murder. The reason is that he saw nude photo of the woman in a drawer in a police official’s desk.

Five hundred pengős was a big and thoroughly considered investment. Anyone who spent that much for girl served important clients. And no doubt he didn’t send the gals to bed down customers in some shady servant’s room in some shady neighborhood like Terézváros. Gordon  would have been lying to himself had he denied that there was anything unusual about this particular girl. But one thing was certain: no matter what he might find out about her, in he found out anything at all, it would not be pleasant. And in all probability, he couldn’t write about it. Even if he were to find the other girls who served this high-class clientele, not a single paper would be willing to publish the article.

In tracing the culprit in the backstreets of Budapest, the incautious Gordon soon finds himself to be the witch of interest in a witch hunt.

Set in October 1936, just after the sudden real-life death of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös, the exposition hints at the coming menace. Jewish people are feeling increased pressure, not that for them being in Hungary in the first place was a stroke of good luck. The communist and fascist powers are asserting power. Still, the focus is always on the woman’s death and the investigation and interviews. Budapest's streets, squares and landmarks are mentioned by name, which will thrill people who have lived and visited that city. Having a Hungarian grandmother, I like the stereotypes: Hungarian men are handsome, Hungarian women are beautiful, and when they urge you to try wonderful Hungarian cuisine, they stuff you with viands full of fat.


The development of the main character Gordon takes precedence over the plot, even though he is a little more than a monochrome photograph. I liked the fact that the investigator had a job other than a PI or a homicide detective. Gordon is a real macho man who maddeningly stubborn and pessimistic, but he's smart and resourceful. And sly. Not to mention the kind of boyfriend that says things like, “Please don’t be more angry than necessary.” Mercifully, there are some normal people, such as Krisztina, the graphic designer GF of Gordon, and the comic relief grandfather, Opa, a former doctor who spends his days making experimental jams and preserves. 

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