Book Review – MURDER ON THE DANUBE
The Danube River separates Buda from Pest. (Photo from the World Wide Web)
MURDER ON THE DANUBE BY William S. Shepard
Until you adjust to the book’s structure and Hungarian names it seems as convoluted as the history of Hungary itself, but it’s fascinating to anyone who has ever been caught up in that milieu, even as a tourist. You go in thinking of the Gabor sisters and apple strudel. You find yourself enmeshed in history, culture and religion dating back a thousand years, and a language known as Magyar.
Author William S. Shepard is a former career diplomat who served as Consul and Political Officer at the American Embassy in Budapest. According to his biography at Amazon, he was made an Honorary Hungarian Freedom Fighter at the 25th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.
The story alternates between scenes from the 1956 revolution and present day diplomatic events, or, as Shepard writes: “The time is the indeterminate past, or if you prefer, the nearly present. This is a work of historical fiction.”
The protagonist is “Robbie” Cutler, Political Officer for the American Embassy in Budapest. He’s the second generation in his family to be stationed there. His father, “Trip” Cutler, was the American ambassador during the 1956 uprising and still has troublesome memories of that time.
In Hungary, bitterness remains: A tour guide remarks: “Yes, it was brave, all the more so because so many of us believed that the Americans would come. Our people heard their broadcasts which encouraged the uprising. We fought in the streets against an army. Then nobody came to help. We were left alone, as usual. That has happened often in our history.”
The Prologue is set in 1956. The main story opens with Robbie preparing to host a diplomatic dinner in the “nearly present.” Old wounds lie just beneath the surface and everyone has an agenda. The Australian ambassador was Sandor Kovacs, a Hungarian who slipped out of Hungary as the revolution wound down and emigrated to Australia. Now known as Alexander Kovatch, he plans to interview survivors of the uprising, hoping someone knows what happened to his brother, Csaba Kovacs.
Like Sandor Kovacs/Alexander Kovatch, surviving Freedom Fighters became politicians, bankers and bureaucrats, still uneasy about their pasts. The author alternates past and present, picking up stories of known survivors as they prepare to meet again at a Parliament reception organized by Imre Mohacsi, now a parliamentary leader of the Smallholders Party.
A reader’s curiosity is focused on the question: What happened to Csaba Kovacs and his pretty friend Eva Molnar?
The pace quickens when Janos Magassy, who emigrated to New Jersey, arrives in Budapest to see about building a memorial to the 1956 Revolution. He wants a statuary group of Freedom Fighters similar to the Korean Memorial in Washington D.C. Before he can meet with Robbie to discuss his plans, Janos is murdered.
The American ambassador asks Robbie to look into the murder.Robbie’s investigation takes on aspects of a traditional police procedural – ferreting out friends and relatives who might know something about the victim’s movements and his murder.Everyone remembers the Revolution and Robbie surmises that “nostalgia would be a leading Hungarian product.”
One puzzle is the murder weapon – a sabre. At this point the reader may learn more about fencing than he or she really wants to know, but the Hungarian cavalry sabre is an integral part of Hungary’s history and culture. Robbie correctly believes that a sabre is not a weapon an assassin carries around but is more likely a weapon of opportunity. If so, why did Janos have it with him when he agreed to meet someone late at night? The trail leads to surprising places.
The diplomatic world as painted here is a small, gossipy one, almost a closed society, with most of the action taking place at social functions or in cafes, over coffee. The story is ratcheted up several notches when Robbie is targeted by a professional assassin. The ending would fit an Agatha Christie “Poirot” novel, with interested parties gathered in the private dining room of a secluded restaurant for a review of the investigation and unmasking of the murderer.
Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Would I read the others in the series? Absolutely