This original and intelligent crime novel defies easy categorisation, so I’m reluctant to just refer to it as a police procedural, and that goes for its predecessor, District VIII, too. Of course, Kossuth Square is a police procedural, and it’s a damn good one; it follows Inspector Balthazar Kovacs as he investigates the death of a Qatari businessman at a Budapest brothel. However, it jumps boundaries because it’s concerns are far wider reaching than the usual murder mystery. This novel criss-crosses thriller sub-genres, it is also a tale of political conspiracy and a spy story. LeBor seems to handle the fluidity with consummate ease. He has created a story that reflects the darker side of Hungarian society and gets under the skin of its political corruption and the extremism in its structures. Kossuth Square has the beautiful complexity of a le Carré novel and like le Carré is stimulating and entertaining. Its scope and ambition, it’s sense of locale, and understanding of world affairs mark it out as a thought provoking and eye opening read.
LeBor has lived in this part of the world for a number of years and the story oozes local knowledge and experience as much as research (all crucial to the story but worn lightly). Kossuth Square is not so much a conspiracy theory novel as an insightful take on the way the world really works. This is a novel grounded in real world dirt and grime and mucky political shenanigans that explores important contemporary themes, from the treatment of Roma people to international terrorism, money laundering and people trafficking. I savoured every minute of this read.
Of course, we are more used to seeing Hungary as an adjunct to a spy thriller rather than the focus of a modern police procedural (short hand), but LeBor’s novel puts the country, it’s politics and culture front and centre in this fast-paced thriller. The result is a gripping noir that illustrates just how inter-connected Europe has become and how international concerns are something we all face. Corruption and crime in Hungary have geo-political consequences, to ignore this just because this is a country remote and on the edge of Europe is folly. You will get that from reading this novel.
Kossuth Square is the second book in the Budapest Blues series featuring inspector Balthazar Kovacs of the Budapest police. It’s a novel that draws heavily on LeBor’s experience and knowledge as a foreign correspondent with a special interest in Eastern Europe and Hungary in particular. His understanding of the local situation and the links to wider geo-political issues underpins a complex story. I have read thrillers and spy novels set in Hungary before, but most often they are related to the Cold War. None that explore the country after the accession to the European Union or the current regime as LeBor does (revealing a right-wing extremism, links to Islamist terrorism and brutal reactions to mass immigration). He is a master at connecting the dots, seeing the bigger picture and giving a context to a murder mystery that has implications for modern day Europe and world affairs.
The complexity of the story is reminiscent of LeBor’s three earlier novels, the Yael Azoulay series, in which LeBor broke new ground with his unique take on the international situation placing the United Nations at the heart of the action rather than nation states (America/Russia/China/Britain)
This is a story that also gets intensely personal for Balthazar Kovacs, he has Roma blood, his family have always been involved in crime and he has been estranged from his father since he joined the police. Kossuth Square is a multi-layered tale of corruption that gets to the rotten core of Hungarian society and deeply implicates Kovacs’ own family. This underbelly has real power and manipulates the system for its own ends. With the best instincts of an experienced journalist LeBor has rootled around in the muddy world of Hungarian politics to illustrate the craven and dangerous nature of its fragile democracy. But clearly he cares about this country and its future, this is a measured and unsensational novel.
Budapest, 1995. A sixteen-year-old Roma girl is dropped off in the city’s most affluent area, outside a house on Buda hill. She’s here to sing for a party, she’s never been unchaperoned before and never seen such wealth. There’s a politician with his girlfriend at one of the windows (that girl seems very young too). Jazz emanates from inside, she is apprehensive, but she walks up and knocks the door.
Laczy Lajos Street, Budapest, 2015. The man at the centre of the bed, kneeling hunched forward, is dead. Inspector Balthazar Kovacs takes in the scene in the brothel’s VIP room. A young woman asks if she is in trouble, Kinga Torok is 22, a law student at Elte University, and this is where she makes the money for a better life. The man is clearly a foreigner and that makes everything more difficult, that’s why Eszter, the manager, called Balthazar. The dead man’s name is Abdullah al-Nuri, a Qatari. Balthazar’s brother, Gaspar Kovacs, owns this and several other brothels across the city. When Gaspar turns up, they check the CCTV, but the footage from last night is missing.
Reka Bardossy, the Prime Minister, rings her husband in Doha, he says the negotiations with the Qataris are moving slowly but in the right direction; there are billions at stake. Bardossy has a tentative hold on her new position, she was the Minister of Justice when the passport scandal blew up. The British, the Americans and even her own secret service, the Allami Biztonsagi Szolgalat, want to bring her down. Legitimate Hungarian passports were sold to people traffickers, who sold them on to Islamic radicals who moved on to London and US, both the ex-PM, Pal Dezeffy, and Reka Bardossy were involved, they took the money. Now she’s PM Bardossy has to spin this as a sting operation but plenty of loose ends need to be tied up.
Balthazar and his friend at the security services, Anastasia Ferenczy, both think the death at the brothel is linked to the passport scandal. It may also link back to Mahmoud Hajazi, a terrorist, Balthazar killed last year. The network that got him into the country is still out there. As the strands of the story come together Balthazar will have to face up to his own family history and the story of a cousin who went missing twenty years earlier.
Balthazar Kovacs is an intriguing detective, he has a fascinating background, the fact that he is Roma plays into the story, he has a lightly worn charm and an honesty, but he has enough rough edges and shades of grey to make him interesting. I’ve never been to Budapest but the city evoked in the novel rings true with everything you can pick up in the press. The seedy rundown areas, the divide between the poor and rich communities, Buda and Pest, all seem real. Kossuth Square is a powerful and totally gripping thriller that ramps up the tension and the darkness.
LeBor’s first novel, The Budapest Protocol, dealt with a conspiracy to determine Germany’s fate after WWII. It was followed by the United Nations, Yael Azoulay series, she works as a covert negotiator for the Secretary General: The Geneva Option (2013), The Washington Stratagem (2015), and The Reykjavik Assignment (2017). As for the Budapest Blues series, District VIII, the first Balthazar Kovacs investigation was published in 2018. I’m already waiting for the next novel in the series.
Paul Burke 5/4
Kossuth Square by Adam LeBor
Head of Zeus 9781786692733 hbk Apr 2019