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Balkan Noir

Real-life research

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

I wanted to write a crime series set in Belgrade for a long time. It’s a fascinating city and I thought it would be perfect as a backdrop for Balkan Noir. I’ve also loved two Serbian women, my son is half Serbian and I lived in Belgrade in the 1990s. 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 1990s called See You in the Obituary, which simply interviewed criminals. 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 notoriety 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 that 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 the 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. To quote the novel’s blurb: ‘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 where our sons were playing. We fell in love and she told me her story: as a young woman in Belgrade in the 1990s, she’d been the girlfriend of a drug dealer. This 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 married and had a son.

Not long after we met 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, we met the police inspector in a café. At first, he was understandably reluctant to talk. But with my girlfriend acting as translator, 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, which is transported through the Balkans and finishes up in western European countries such as Germany and the UK. The Balkans are the transit route. It is the West which consumes. One thing I was really pleased to find out was that heroin is sometimes transported in ajvar. This is a Serbian relish made from red peppers, one of the most delicious things in the world. In my novel, 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. As I wrote the novel, I planned the rest of my series, influenced by George Pelecanos’ D.C Quartet, Don Winslow’s Cartel trilogy and the novel Romanzo Criminale (which is the start of a loose series) by Giancarlo De Cataldo. The DC Quartet is a magnetic portrait of Washington D.C., as it spans decades and a set of characters, in a city rife with crime and corruption. The Cartel is a brutal and powerful depiction of the Mexican drug cartels, heartbreaking from the very first page which lists all the journalists killed during the time the book was written. Romanzo Criminale unflinchingly depicts the rise of criminal gangs in Rome, as criminality and state became intertwined.

Winslow in particular immersed himself in years of close-up research utilizing police sources as well as talking with journalists and drug addicts. He interviewed everyone from DEA agents and journalists to dealers and addicts. He read as much as he could about the topic and watched horrific footage until he couldn’t watch anymore. He re-arranged actual events into a dramatic structure, created realistic characters with real emotions and wrote a fictional narrative that reveals underlying truths about the war on drugs. One of the truths being that Mexico simply supplies what the USA demands. Winslow also depicted how a power vacuum is created after a kingpin’s death, spurring competitors to fight for the throne.

I wanted to do something similar with my Balkan Noir series. The Clan, the next book in the series, is a mafia biopic that chronicles the rise and crackdown of Serbian criminal clans. To piece together the complex history of criminal activity in Serbia in the 1990s, I accessed vast amounts of online newspaper articles, contacted journalists and viewed several documentaries.

In his book Gomorrah, the journalist Roberto Saviano described how criminal kingpins such as Arkan made deals with the Italian mafia during the war, allowing gun, cigarette and petrol smuggling to run through the Balkans. In his journalistic work McMafia, Misha Glenny reported that criminals from former Yugoslavia worked with each other during and after the war, ‘shifting contrabands, narcotics and women from territory to territory’. In the documentary series Insajder, investigative journalist Brankica Stanković proved that money made from cigarette smuggling and insider trading ended up in Greek bank accounts for various politicians and businessmen including the President’s son.

The Clan depicts a turbulent era within Serbia, the narrative shaped by conflicts across the Balkans and larger-than-life characters. The novel is also a homage to journalists who strove to expose corruption and ended up assassinated, as well as the police who fought corruption to eventually bring down The Zemun Clan. However, the demise of the Clan allowed a cocaine cartel to step into the vacuum. I’m currently editing Balkan Warriors, a fictionalised account of a real-life Serbian police operation.

To research this novel, I was given access to archived sources by Balkan security and intelligence expert Daniel Sunter, who documented the police operation. I was also provided with the autobiography of investigative journalist Brankica Stanković and translated notes from the biography of cocaine kingpin Darko Šarić, written by the journalist Stevan Dojčinović. As a British crime writer who has lived in Serbia, I think the region’s past turmoil is ripe for creating a new genre of 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 drug dealers and prostitutes back into her life. This was heartbreaking 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. What followed 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. With my research becoming the story itself, I fictionalised this as a real-life thriller, a tragic drama and a doomed romance.

Cal’s latest novel is The Woman with a Bullet in Her Leg. He has lived in Serbia, Japan, Mexico and Italy. He now lives in Wales with his teenage son.

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