Written by Vilmos Kondor – October 1936, Hungarian prime minister Gyula Gӧmbӧs has just died while receiving medical treatment in Germany. Kondor’s debut novel opens with news of Gӧmbӧs’ death filtering through Budapest. This is the first in a series of stories featuring crime journalist, Zsigmond Gordon, which was originally published in Hungarian in 2008 and has recently been translated into English. It’s also hailed as the first Hungarian example of crime fiction.
Following the prime minister’s death, Budapest has fallen into a respectful silence and attention seems to be focused on preparing for a state funeral. Zsigmond’s mind however is focused on a story, the Róna case, until his attention is distracted by the discovery of a dead prostitute in the middle of Nagy Diófa Street. At first he’s unsure whether to pursue the matter. His girlfriend Kristina reminds him that he’s a crime journalist not an investigator, and would be stepping into uncharted territory, but he finds himself being drawn deeper in, along with Kristina and his grandfather, Mór.
It takes a while for this book to really get going, but it’s worth sticking with it because this is a well plotted read. Initially it’s the fascination with the political situation in 1930s Hungary that keeps you transfixed – a complex and dangerous period during which the Nazis are clearly starting to make their mark, something that is evident in many of the street names in Budapest. You quickly begin to wonder whether there is more to this murder than meets the eye and it becomes evident that the victim might be more than merely a high-class prostitute. The reader follows Zsigmond into a shady world of gangsters, prostitution, illegal boxing matches and hidden secrets.
Apart from Zsigmond and Kristina, the one character that stands out is Mór. A retired doctor, he now spends much of his time going to the market to buy fruit for making jam, and is clearly very fond of his grandson. He plays a useful role in the investigation, but Zsigmond is careful to ensure his safety, and particularly that of Kristina who finds herself being physically threatened by an unknown adversary. There are forces at work determined that he shouldn’t be poking around. However, even the threat of violence and worse is not enough to stop this crime journalist. Zsigmond’s investigation is methodical and easy to follow. Each of the pieces falls neatly into place culminating in a conclusion that although ultimately shocking, deftly ties up the story so there are no loose ends. You’ll be left satisfied with the solution, although not necessarily with Zsigmond’s methods.
It’s an excellent debut by Vilmos Kondor. What’s surprising is that this is the first crime fiction novel to originate from Hungary, but it’s great to see it available on Kindle and as a paperback from 31 January.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars