Cal Smyth talks about the extraordinary true-life events he experienced that inspired his series of Serbia-set crime thrillers.
I wanted to write a crime series set in Belgrade for a long time as it’s a fascinating city and perfect for Balkan Noir. I’ve also loved two Serbian women, my son is half Serbian and I lived in Belgrade in the 90s. At that time, Belgrade was a crazy place. The Yugoslav War was over, the West had imposed sanctions and inflation was off the scale. The only economy which worked was the black-market and in this climate, crime thrived.
There’s a Serbian documentary from the 90s called See You in the Obituary, which simply interviewed criminals to get their thoughts. By the time the documentary had finished being made, most of the interviewees had been killed. One of the journalists behind the documentary became a monk and went to live in a secluded monastery while one of the few surviving criminals went on to become a reality TV star.
One of Serbia’s most famous criminals was Arkan, who gained world renown with his military unit Arkan’s Tigers. There’s an iconic photo of him holding a tiger cub, which was taken by an American photographer. When the same photographer published a photo of Arkan’s men killing civilians, Arkan reportedly said if he ever got hold of the photographer, he would drink his blood. But for many Serbians, Arkan was a national hero, standing up against the West. He was also married to Serbia’s most famous pop star, Ceca. For five years, they were Belgrade’s glamour couple. Until Arkan was assassinated in 2000.
Belgrade has cleaned up a lot of crime since then. After the Prime Minister Zoran Đinđic was assassinated in 2003, Operation Sabre cracked down on the Zemun Clan. And in recent years, the Balkan Warriors operation brought down the cocaine cartel. For the first novel in my series, The Balkan Route, I wanted to capture the essence of Belgrade in a present-day investigation affected by past events: As criminals, politicians and police battle over the Balkan drug route, Inspector Despotović must fight corruption to keep his family alive.
At the same time as I was starting to write The Balkan Route, I met The Woman with a Bullet in her Leg. She was studying linguistics in the UK for a semester as a mature student and we met in a park in Swansea where our sons were playing. We fell in love and she told me her story: as a young woman in Belgrade in the 90s, she’d been the girlfriend of a drug dealer which ended with a police car chase and her getting shot in the leg. When doctors operated, they couldn’t remove the bullet. Needing to get out of the life, she moved to Austria where she got married and had a son.
Not long after meeting each other, I was awarded a Literature Wales Writers’ Research Bursary. I wanted to use this bursary to interview a police inspector in Belgrade. Through a friend of mine, an author and publisher in Belgrade, a clandestine meeting was arranged with a young police inspector. Me and my girlfriend-cum-research assistant flew over to Belgrade, staying with her family, who in typical Serbian fashion fed me until I couldn’t eat any more. The next day, after more food and drink with my friend, we met the police inspector in a café. At first, he was understandably reluctant to talk. But with my friend and girlfriend acting as translators, he opened up, telling me about the Balkan drug route, corruption and recent arrests.
The Balkan drug route starts in Afghanistan, where poppies are cultivated into heroin, is transported through the Balkans and finishes in western European countries such as Germany and the UK. The Balkans are the transit route. It’s the West which consumes. One thing I was really pleased to find out was that heroin is sometimes transported in ajvar. Ajvar is a Serbian relish made from red peppers, one of the most delicious things in the world. I’d imagined heroin was hidden in jars of ajvar and it turned out to be true.
The Balkan Route takes its title from the drug route but it is also a love letter to Belgrade and is dedicated to the city, a European capital which is full of culture and history. The novel has been described as ‘a milieu to die for’ and ‘like the Balkans itself: there is action, there is passion, there is love and corruption’.
Next in my series is The Clan (due to be published in 2020), a mafia biopic that chronicles the rise and crackdown of Serbian criminal clans, but is also a homage to journalists who strived to expose corruption and ended up assassinated as well as the police who fought corruption to eventually bring down The Zemun Clan. And I’m currently writing Balkan Warriors, a fictionalised account of the police operation that brought down the cocaine cartel.
As a British crime writer who has lived in Serbia, I think the region’s past turmoil is ripe for crime fiction. Within the last few years, several crime writers from the Balkans have had novels published and crime fiction from the region is gaining international recognition. In 2015, Akashic published Zagreb Noir (including crime stories by Andrea Žigić-Dolenec, Robert Perišić & Mima Simić) and plans to publish Belgrade Noir in 2019 (featuring the writers Verica Vincent Kol, Marko Popović & Đorđe Bajić). The anthology BalkaNoir was recently published, featuring crime writers from several Balkan countries (including Renato Bratković from Slovenia, Bogdan Hrib from Romania and Vasilis Danellis from Greece). As Serbian writer Verica Vincent Kol has written, the publication of novels like The Balkan Route is the ‘beginning of a great new trend in crime fiction’.
In a case of real-life replicating crime fiction, as The Balkan Route was being published, my then girlfriend was back in Austria and letting the past back into her life. This was heart-breaking for both of us. But it is one thing to write about crime and another to be involved with it. A few months later, I got a call from a lawyer in Austria. My former researcher and girlfriend was in prison and I was being asked to help get her out.
This was a crazy story involving tapped phone calls, a prostitute in witness protection and several kilos of cocaine. Out of love, I went over to Austria and helped get her out of prison. Without giving any more of the story away, I fictionalised this as a real-life thriller, a tragic drama and a doomed romance…
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