Book review: District VIII by Adam LeBor

Foreign correspondent Adam LeBor has crafted a good - if slow - thriller, says Alan Montague


Journalists, particularly at the more scurrilous end of the market, are sometimes accused of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. No one could ever say that of Adam LeBor. As a respected foreign correspondent of long-standing, facts, detail, evidence are his stock in trade.

Unfortunately, what is commendable about his journalism has at times hampered his thriller writing, with facts getting in the way of a good story.

His Yael Azoulay series of novels about a United Nations official battling terrorism and corruption was bogged down in explanations of the workings of the organisation, job descriptions of senior and not-so-senior figures and the exotic backgrounds of various characters.

Readers were left vastly better informed about the UN, but thrilled? Maybe not so much.

In District VIII, however, LeBor has rectified the problem. Not that he has abandoned his journalistic ways — far from it. But the facts are inserted seamlessly into the story and, for the most part, the narrative runs as smoothly as a broad and free-flowing river.

And let’s say the river is the Danube, because this time out Lebor is on home ground in Budapest, the city where he lives and which is his base for reporting on events across eastern Europe.

It is the height of the refugee crisis, and thousands of asylum-seekers from Africa and the Middle East have collected at Keleti station in downtown Pest, halted on their journey westwards after the Hungarian government closed the border with Austria.

A Syrian man goes missing, and murder is suspected. Enter Balthazar Kovacs, a homicide detective, whose investigation is hindered by the fact that no body has been discovered and that Kovacs’s colleagues in the security forces seem strangely keen on obstructing his inquiries.

Lebor trade-marks, familiar from the UN novels, are on show here. Kovacs is an outsider, a gypsy, not quite trusted — especially as, in his case, his brother is a big-time gangster.

A reporter, Eniko, is also an outsider on account of both her job and her Jewish roots; she, too, is on the trail of the murderer. They really should pool resources but they are ex-lovers weighed down with emotional baggage, so working together isn’t an option. What they separately uncover is terrorism and political corruption at the highest level.

The real joy about the novel comes in the descriptions of Budapest, which rival any guide-book. Lebor clearly knows every nook of the city and its various districts, from upscale Buda, where government ministers have their mansions, to gritty District VIII, where the gypsy community lives.

Hints of the city’s once-flourishing Jewish life are sprinkled through the book, and there’s a shocking account of how, during the war, Budapest’s Jews were rounded up and executed on the banks of the Danube.

I may be nit-picking but a little more narrative pace could have been injected as the story reaches its climax but, all in all, this is a satisfying outing that thriller fans — and geography geeks —will enjoy. And that’s a fact.

District VIII (Danube Blues) by Adam LeBor is published by Head of Zeus 

Alan Montague is the JC’s news editor

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive