Life’s tough for a Gypsy cop in Budapest. The cops don’t trust you because you’re a Gypsy. Your fellow Gypsies, even your own family, shun you because you’re a cop.
The dead, however, don’t care. So when Balthazar Kovacs, a detective in the city’s murder squad, gets a mysterious message on his phone from a blocked number, he gulps down the rest of his morning coffee, grabs his police ID and goes to work. The message has two parts: a photograph and an address. The photograph shows a man lying on his back with his eyes open, half-covered by a blue plastic sheet. The address is 26, Republic Square, the former Communist Party headquarters and once the most feared building in the country. But when Kovacs arrives at Republic Square, the body has gone…
Kovacs’ investigation will take him deep into Budapest’s shadows, an underworld visitors never get to see: the gritty back alleys of District VIII; the people smuggling networks around Keleti Station; the endemic corruption of a country still haunted by the ghosts of history. And when the leads point to the involvement of his brother Gaspar, the city’s most powerful pimp, Kovacs will be forced to choose between the law and family loyalty.
- What book first ignited your love of reading?
There was no single book but when I was a child I loved the Just William series and the Billy Bunter books.
- If your current book had a theme song, what would it be and why?
“Djelem, Djelem”, an evocative Balkan Gypsy lament.
- Which book have you read more than once?
Dark Star by Alan Furst, a spy novel set on the cusp of the Second World War. The book is so well drawn that reading it is like time travel.
- Do you plan your writing or go with the flow?
They say there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. Architects plan everything in detail, while gardeners just throw some seeds of plot and character out and see what takes and flowers. I like to have a basic idea of where the story is going and who the characters are, but I try and go with the flow, and often invent/hone characters along the way as the story evolves, rather than starting with a set, pre-arranged cast.
- Do you enjoy the editing process?
Yes. One of my favourite moments each day is when I fire up my computer and look over what I wrote the previous day and polish it. But it’s important to move the story forward and not get bogged down in fine-tuning. I also enjoy editors’ feedback once they have read the completed manuscript, especially when I know that it has passed muster and we are on track.
- If you could what advice would you give your sixteen year old self?
- Do you read your book reviews?
Yes, of course. I don’t know any author who does not read his or her reviews. Reviews are part of the writing and publishing process. But it’s important not to obsess about them and I am not sure how much they really affect sales. I think word of mouth is as important.
- What is your opinion on social media and it’s unique gift of connecting writer and reader instantly?
I have mixed feelings about this. Social media helps for publicity and for having interesting exchanges with readers. But I am of the generation that is more used to writing a book, seeing it published then moving on to the next one. I would rather spend my time writing books than tweets.
- If you could give one literary villain a happier ending, who would you pick and why?
Dracula, because he is a tragic figure, cursed to live forever.
- What are you currently reading?
The Red Coffin by Sam Eastland – a detective novel set in Russia in 1939.
- Where did you get the inspiration for your current novel?
In the summer of 2015 Keleti station in Budapest became the epicentre of the European refugee crisis. Those scenes stayed with me. District VIII opens at Keleti station, but it is also rooted in my work as a foreign correspondent, reporting on central and eastern Europe since the early 1990s. Some years ago I attended a reception at the British embassy in Budapest for the Hungarian Roma Police Union, where I met several Gypsy police officers. That started me thinking about a novel.
- If your book could come with a preemptive message for the reader, what would yours say?
Things aren’t always what they seem.
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