By George Ebey
When Wall Street banker Patrick McCarry’s firm makes him the scapegoat after a hedge fund disaster, he manages to find a new position in London running a small investment business. Assigned to handle Chester Holt, an American looking to open a factory making engines in Hungary, McCarry learns on arriving in Budapest that his new client is actually in the arms business. Members of the American intelligence community fear Holt may be pouring fuel on the continually combustible Balkans, sending McCarry down a dangerous path with twists straight out of a John le Carré novel.
I recently caught up with author James Ross to talk about his new espionage thriller, DEATH IN BUDAPEST.
What motivated you to set your story in the Balkans? Does this region hold a specific interest for you?
My wife had an aunt, a poet named Evelyn Wexler, who was born in Hungary and was distressed by the treatment of Jews, although Hungary was among the last to deport during World War II. I visited Budapest with two other journalists and had the comical pleasure of being accused on Hungarian TV of being “from Langley.” It was too absurd, and too much fun, not to work into a novel at some point. My accuser has a cameo as Folkestone or something like that. In fact he was a British newspaperman named Ecclestone. There are other bits of low-level reality in the book. The basement strip club, Dolce Vita, was much as described. The paranoia of the country reflects reality as closely as I could understand it. The nationalism seems pervasive. The economic disorder that serves as a backdrop to the novel is progressing nicely. Unlike my hero, I wasn’t shot at, and the only bureaucrats I met behaved themselves.
The narrator of your story is described as having a sardonic wit. Can you talk a little about the virtues and challenges of molding humor into a thriller story?
That’s a good question. I don’t think there’s much room in a serious novel for humor, even of the dry or sardonic sort. If I used it in a serious book, I would assign it to a character who is trying to evade some sort of reality, the drunken fool who hopes loud laughter will cover something up. DEATH IN BUDAPEST is meant as light entertainment. I tried to anchor it in the real world, but it’s for fun. My first model was Adam Hall, who wrote the high-speed Quiller novels. I wanted to see if I could propel a story fast enough that the reader would be well into a new chapter before understanding what had happened at the end of the previous one. So there are a lot of very fast cuts. The other model was a series of romps that Victor Canning wrote. I’ve forgotten his hero’s name, but he appeared in light thrillers such as THE MELTING MAN. Dry, bitter humor can work in either of those type stories. And I also wanted the book to be very cold-blooded. The downside of that–you didn’t ask but I’ll say it–is that the rewards for the reader are limited. There’s no warm-fuzzy sense of justice done or any other value achieved.
Maybe I should back up to the issues of wit or humor. They’re different things, you know. There’s no humor–at least none intentional–in DEATH IN BUDAPEST. A couple of my books have been described as acerbic. That’s probably a good word here. My novel LONG PIG, from 2011, which managed to avoid being reviewed, was acerbic in its depictions of movieland and politics, but the spirit was deliberately mean and nasty. It has one of my favorite character epiphanies, when the hero concludes that if he can’t help anyone, at least he can fuck someone up once in a while. In DEATH AND BUDAPEST, there’s something of that attitude when McCarry decides that “a needle and soft music” are the usual treatment he can expect from the intelligence clowns on the scene. He doesn’t get the soft music.
You’ve written numerous stories for ALFRED HITCHCOCK, ELLERY QUEEN, and others. Did you start off writing stories such as these before making the leap to full-length novels?
Well, other writers have leapt. I move at an invalid’s pace. My first story appeared in Hitchcock’s in 1976. My first novel was published in 1991. So you see, no natural talent here just waiting to erupt.
When DEATH IN BUDAPEST hits the shelves, what’s the best compliment you could hope to receive?
KIRKUS gave it to me in 1994, when they said Death in Jerusalem”roars along like a BMW in heat.” The PUBLISHERS WEEKLY review of Budapest was heartening, and possibly generous.
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY said, “Fans of hard-edged spy novels will hope that this outing for disgraced Wall Street banker Patrick McCarry is but the first of many from Ross.” Is this outing the first of many?
Probably not. I don’t know how other writers can produce essentially the same story–or at least the same type story–in book after book. It’s absolutely necessary for branding, I know. But it would bore me. When I was eighteen, I spent a few months watching guys do piece work stamping out molds in an iron foundry. Why do that with a word processor?
James L. Ross, sometimes described as a former newspaperman who knows Washington and Wall Street first-hand, is other times admitted to be a pseudonym of John C. Boland. Ross is the author of “Bears in Mind” (Hitchcock’s Jan/Feb 2012) and an earlier novel, Long Pig. In the 25-year-old photos on his books, he is fairly good-looking.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.