Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

4.4 5
by Julian Rubinstein

See All Formats & Editions

DESCRIPTION: Elmore Leonard meets Franz Kafka in the wild, improbably true story of the legendary outlaw of Budapest. Attila Ambrus was a gentleman thief, a sort of Cary Grant--if only Grant came from Transylvania, was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper, and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey


DESCRIPTION: Elmore Leonard meets Franz Kafka in the wild, improbably true story of the legendary outlaw of Budapest. Attila Ambrus was a gentleman thief, a sort of Cary Grant--if only Grant came from Transylvania, was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper, and preferred women in leopard-skin hot pants. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbery to make ends meet. Arrayed against him was perhaps the most incompetent team of crime investigators the Eastern Bloc had ever seen: a robbery chief who had learned how to be a detective by watching dubbed Columbo episodes; a forensics man who wore top hat and tails on the job; and a driver so inept he was known only by a Hungarian word that translates to Mound of Ass-Head. BALLAD OF THE WHISKEY ROBBER is the completely bizarre and hysterical story of the crime spree that made a nobody into a somebody, and told a forlorn nation that sometimes the brightest stars come from the blackest holes. Like The Professor and the Madman and The Orchid Thief, Julian Rubinsteins bizarre crime story is so odd and so wicked that it is completely irresistible.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Rubinstein has found a story of the sort that would make even the most dry-mouthed journalist slobber. Sometimes sad, often hilarious and always absurd, Ambrus's tale microcosmically condenses the politico-historic oddities of his place and era into one entertaining and tidy narrative... With a keen eye for the ridiculous, fearlessly high-speed prose and an extraordinary wealth of reported detail, Rubinstein conducts the affair like an unusually thoughtful carnival barker."—New York Times Book Review (Editors' Choice)

"Outrageously entertaining... An essential absurdism is never far from the surface... A rip-roaring cops and robbers saga with a Mitteleuropean heart."—San Francisco Chronicle

"The antagonistic protagonist of Julian Rubinstein's picaresque romp is a real person who defies belief... Rubinstein rides the momentum in appropriately riotous fashion, but he wisely never lets his vivid style overshadow a tale that burns up the pages on its own momentum. Nor does he succumb to sentimentality when exploring the tale's pathos-and believe it or not, there's as much of that as there is burlesque. A memorable tragicomedy."—Boston Globe

"Julian Rubinstein's richly enjoyable true-crime saga... Mr. Rubinstein narrates all these farcical goings-on with a sad affection peeking through, even for the dumbest and most corrupt characters. But primarily he maintains that marvelously sardonic Eastern European resignation, that ironic tone of voice that always seems to shrug and say, 'So what did you expect?'"—Dallas Morning News

"Sometimes a book comes along that taxes even our best summarizing skills, but since we can't just really order you to read it (or can we?), let's just say that Julian Rubinstein's Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, the totally bizarre true story of ice hockey-playing bank robber (and pelt smuggler, grave-digger, the list goes on) Attila Ambrus is one of the quirkiest and most riveting narratives. Here, the bad guys are the gentleman, the good guys are the bumblers, and nothing is quite what it seems, but that won't keep you from laughing out loud every couple of pages. Weirdness has never been quite so winning."—Elle

"Rubinstein has a knack for vividly portraying his stranger-than-fiction characters... By turns hilarious and incredible, this stuff just can't be made up."—Maxim (5 out of 5 stars)

"A wonderful read. Rubinstein's account of the Whiskey Robber seems straight out of Hollywood and indeed it's ideal for the big screen."—Sports Illustrated

"A beautifully crafted tale... In Rubinstein's deft hands, Attila becomes a great tragicomic character... Unlike many books today that run out of energy after the first several chapters, Rubinstein keeps up the high energy, madcap comedy throughout the book."—Denver Post

"This story of a bank robber who captured a nation's sympathy in post-Communist Hungary is a rollicking tale told with glee and flair.... Rubinstein has a knack for telling a good story, and he captures well both Ambrus's appeal and the atmosphere of the first few years of capitalism in Hungary... This Jesse James-like tale has the chance to be a sleeper that transcends nonfiction categories."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Never was there a more entertaining case history of the fall of communism... Wholly enjoyable."—Kirkus

"Its hard to imagine what journalist Julian Rubinstein thought when he stumbled across the twisted tale of Attila Ambrus, but his fascination finds riveting realization in Ballad of the Whiskey Robber, a nonfiction account of a story that must be read to be believed... Rubinstein surveys the whole tale in grand storytelling fashion, following the action and the chase in entertaining detail. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is more than just an impressive yarn, though: Set against a rich backdrop of hope and despair, the book is a heartrending study of a character whose bungling tells the story of a world much bigger than his own."—The Onion, AV Club

It was apparent to all onlookers that Attila Ambrus was not a brilliant hockey goalkeeper. Sensing that his future lay elsewhere, young Attila searched for a new career. He found it in armed robbery. With a personal flair that would have impressed John Dillinger, the dapper Transylvanian robbed dozens of Hungarian banks, bestowing flowers on every female bank employee and thoughtfully leaving champagne for harried police investigators. In the post-Communist thaw, this articulate, well-dressed gentleman thief became a folk hero, inspiring songs and newspaper tributes. After being finally captured, he gave televised interviews from his prison cell, confessing, "I always liked fast money, women, and cars." He remained in custody only half a year, escaping soon after he realized that the officials who he had outwitted intended to make an example of him. Julian Rubinstein's narrative of Central Europe's Whiskey Robber is one of the most endearing true crime stories in years.
Publishers Weekly
This story of a bank robber who captured a nation's sympathy in post-Communist Hungary is a rollicking tale told with glee and flair. Attila Ambrus sneaked over the border from Romania into Hungary in the waning days of Communist rule. After talking his way onto a Hungarian hockey team, he turned to robbery to make some cash in the Wild West atmosphere of the early 1990s in Eastern Europe. As journalist Rubinstein shows, Ambrus was quite good at it. Taking advantage of poor police work, he took in millions in Hungarian currency and became a headline-grabber. He managed to stay at large for several years while continuing in his role as a back-up goalie on the ice. Rubinstein has a knack for telling a good story, and he captures well both Ambrus's appeal and the atmosphere of the first few years of capitalism in Hungary. Along the way, he introduces readers to memorable characters in addition to the appealing, alcoholic protagonist: the women Ambrus attracts and a Budapest detective driven out of office by the crime spree. While Rubinstein (whose work has been collected in Best American Crime Writing) overwrites at times, he has a rootin'-tootin' style that's a perfect fit for this Jesse James-like tale, which has the chance to be a sleeper that transcends nonfiction categories. (Sept. 16) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This terrific first effort by journalist Rubinstein (Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone) details the life and crimes of Attila Ambrus. After a rough childhood in Ceausescu's Romania, Ambrus made a perilous escape into post-Communist Hungary, seeking a better life. He struggled to make his way as a hockey goalie, office-supply salesman, and janitor, but his ambition, proud nature, and fondness for whiskey ultimately led him to become a bank robber. His successful run as the "Whiskey Robber" had more to do with the political climate than any innate skill. The police force was underfunded and untrained, and financial institutions had inadequate security. Ambrus became a folk hero by stealing from banks (never customers), wearing clownlike disguises, and being as polite as a bank robber can be. Rubinstein ably provides the historical and political backdrop to this saga. Ambrus comes across as a fascinating character, and readers will find themselves trying to figure out who should play him on the big screen. Recommended. Karen Sandlin Silverman, Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Rubenstein debuts with a wild tale of true-life folk hero Attila Ambrus, who lost his innocence in post-communist Hungary as he and the nation grappled with the demands of capitalism. The evolution of Attila Ambrus from janitor to the beloved "Whiskey Robber" (so called due to his penchant for getting stinking drunk before carrying out his capers) was slow, but in hindsight practically inevitable. Raised in Romania, where discrimination against ethnic Hungarians like himself was widespread, Ambrus at age 21 risked his life to cross the border into Hungary, clinging to the underside of a train car, only to be treated as a hopeless country bumpkin by his new fellow citizens. The Hungarians were mostly occupied, however, in figuring out how to negotiate the new economy as their country raced toward Western-style capitalism while corrupt officials and business people found new ways to embezzle millions at the expense of the common man. In this unwelcoming climate, Ambrus somehow had to land a job. A disastrous but gutsy tryout led to his employment as a janitor for the hockey team UTE (Ujpest Gym Assocation), but it didn't pay quite enough to make ends meet. Legitimate opportunities were scarce, so when the chance arose to smuggle some pelts from Transylvania, Ambrus made it work. From there it was no great leap to robbing a post office, and once that was done, it was easy to do it again. By the time he was finally apprehended, the nonviolent, unfailingly polite bandit had captured the Hungarian public's heart as a gentleman crook in a country where corrupt captains of industry who had stolen far more than he went unpunished. The author makes abundantly clear his delight inAmbrus's odd history, energy, and circle of friends; never was there a more entertaining case history of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. Breezy, informative, and wholly enjoyable. Agent: Dan Mandel/Sanford Greenburger

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.00(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber

By Julian Rubinstein

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2004 JULIAN RUBINSTEIN
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-07167-6



Saturday, July 10, 1999

The sweet smell of a triple-creme torta hung in the air like a good idea. It was morning, summer, and by the time the narrow streets awakened to the Kalashnikov rattle of the newsstand gates, already humid and warm. Up and down the Danube riverbank, old men in sagging underwear and sleeveless shirts hobbled barefoot onto cracked cement balconies, gazing blankly at the sun streaks stalking the rank, still water. At the north end of chestnut-lined Andrassy Boulevard, wisps of steam puffed from the thousand-year-old springs beneath the Szechenyi bathhouse like an eternal Chernobyl.

From the faded royal Hapsburg palace on Castle Hill to the plump pool-green dome of St. Stephen's Cathedral downtown, the opportunities to imagine that nothing was amiss here in the Hungarian capital were indeed everywhere. That was about to change.

Karoly Benko startled from his guard post, a peg-legged chair at the end of a musty hall, and trundled down the jail's pale corridor. Starving and exhausted from a shift that had begun at 6:00 A.M. the previous day, the balding thirty-two-year-old jail guard called out the number of each cell he approached in a nasally semiconscious drone. "Three-oh-nine, three-ten ..."

It was time for the morning walk.

Corporal Benko, who had forgone university for a chance at such employment, was already a veteran of these hallowed, hated halls. He was the top man in charge of three others on duty that day and 298 prisoners in custody at that hour. It wasn't respectable or even modestly paying work, yet occasionally Karoly felt like the mayor of a small city. Inside the copper-fortified cages he opened was an unscientific sampling of Budapest's misguided, misfortunate, or mistaken: thieves, con artists, killers, men with too many scars or too few teeth. But regardless of who they were or what they'd done, the inmates had their rights, and if they didn't get their walk, every one of them knew he had only to yell, "International Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg," and wait for the rattle of the keys. Times had certainly changed in the decade since the fall of communism. Didn't Karoly just love it.

When he reached cell no. 312, Karoly saw a familiar figure through the slot window of the thin, cafeteria-green door. It was Attila Ambrus, prisoner no. 43, wide-awake and standing stiffly in a military posture, as if he were guarding the room. He was thirty-one years old and phone-your-friends handsome: wide shoulders, strong jaw, a scruffy new mustache on his thick upper lip, and a bemused look in his hazel eyes that said, "I know where everything is buried." Attila's expression, and even his pose, had a barely perceptible wink to it that you had to ignore if you didn't want to get caught smiling back. It was a classic Hungarian this-isn't-a-wink wink and Attila had it down pat. But twenty-seven hours into a thirty-two-hour shift, his zookeeper didn't have the energy for even a yawn. "Three-twelve," Karoly announced, opening Attila's door while another guard arranged the black metal cuffs on Attila's wrists.

For a fleeting moment, Karoly had a thought: What was Attila doing in jeans and a bulky long-sleeve shirt on such an oppressively hot day? This was a jail for the accused awaiting sentencing or trial. Normally in summer, the inmates dressed in shorts. Then again, Attila, a former pelt smuggler who'd managed to make twenty-six desperate, booze-fueled heists look like performance art, wasn't much like the others. Sure, he had the mystery scars, the childhood horror stories, and the unquenchable yearning to be somebody. But he also had paparazzi and a coterie of women delivering cured meats and fresh pastries. Yes, he bribed the guards with cash and cigarettes to turn their heads when he returned from visiting hours with soda bottles stinking of his signature spirit, Johnnie Walker Red. But he was discreet about it. He seemed to have his own sense of right and wrong. And since he'd never given the guards any real trouble, Karoly had concluded what Attila assumed he would: the so-called Whiskey Robber was a model prisoner.

Attila's cellmate, a fraud, declined to get out of bed that morning for the voluntary exercise call, so Attila alone was ushered into a single-file line, which, when Karoly finished unlocking two more cells, included eleven men from six units. They marched outside into the concrete courtyard, by then half draped in gauzy sunshine, and continued along the outdoor corridor, where the empty exercise chambers awaited. Each cell was assigned one of the six open-air boxes. Attila, every well-honed muscle and overstressed vein twitching with anticipation, soundlessly stopped at the fourth. The sit-ups, the push-ups, the leg-sits, the years of studying ways out of unpromising places, were about to be put to their biggest test; the stomach cramps had started hours ago. At last, his walk-box door was opened and then closed behind him, and he turned to put his hands through the slot so one of the guards could remove his cuffs. God, did he need a drink.

Typically, Attila used the ten-minute fitness allotment to jog circles around the roofless, bare, racquetball-court-size room. He was, after all, a professional hockey goalie for Budapest's best-known team. And by his calculations, which were incessant, 1921/3 laps around the perimeter was roughly five kilometers, or 3.1 miles. But Attila wasn't about to make any unnecessary movements today. His legacy, not to mention his life, depended upon the exactitude of his next series of actions. Attila's round face tightened and his combable eyebrows dropped toward his eyes as he breathed deeply and squinted at the cerulean sky. He figured he had nine and a half minutes.

He pulled up his cream-colored overshirt and his dark undershirt. Beneath them, wrapped tightly around his trim waist, was a pink, red, and blue rope made from the strips of four sets of bedsheets, shoelaces from three pairs of sneakers, and thick strands torn from two towels. He tied a slipknot into the line and threw it lasso-style over the thirteen-foot-high wall. On the second try, it caught on the post of a wrought-iron railing in the guard plank above. With the other end of the rope in hand, Attila stepped back until the cable was taut, gathered his strength, then took a running jump against the wall, hauling himself up to the brim of the jail's interior courtyard.

Phase one complete, but he still had to get into and out of the administration building, which faced him from across the yard.

At 8:54 A.M., the black-and-white monitor inside the central guard station displayed a pair of feet stepping along the thin path atop the walk-box wall in the direction of the brown brick guard tower that stood sentry over the courtyard. On most days, due to staff shortages, the tower was empty. As Attila had chanced, today was no exception. When he reached the unmanned post, he looked down at his open-mouthed fellow inmates and put his index finger to his lips. Then his figure vanished over the far side of the wall.

Attila Ambrus, who had turned a six-year robbery spree into a serialized satire of the times, was at large again.

The emergency decree sealing Budapest was issued at 10:50 A.M. All avenues and highways in and out of the city were roadblocked. Police helicopters hovered low and beelike over the sullen, stately buildings. Then, just as the coast guard set out to check every vessel on the Danube River, the hardest rainstorm in decades began pounding the region. Summer in Budapest was over.

Upon hearing news of the jailbreak, Margit Szabo, Attila's aunt who'd helped raise him in Transylvania, suffered a near-fatal heart attack. But most people who knew the fugitive former gravedigger did not require medical attention.

Lajos Varju, the former chief of the robbery department who had unsuccessfully tracked Attila for five years before dejectedly leaving the force, had warned police two months earlier that Attila would attempt an escape. "They didn't want to listen," he said to anyone who would.

Eva Fodor, Attila's fire-haired former girlfriend who had secured his Hungarian citizenship with a perfume-bottle bribe, then nearly swept him from the crime game with a suburban bartending offer, asked herself: "He's smart enough not to show up here. He is, right?"

Laszlo Juszt, the colossal, albino-like host of the hit television show Kriminalis, veered dangerously close to thrombosis. He was unable to air the latest development in the Whiskey Robber saga, as his top-rated show had been banned from the airwaves following his own arrest on charges of revealing state secrets.

The actress Zsuzsa Csala, who had made headlines by offering (along with roughly a thousand others) to adopt Attila's Bernese mountain dog, Don, when Attila was arrested six months earlier, awoke to the jungle sounds of eight policemen foraging in the bushes of her backyard. "Even if I did know something," she contemplated telling them, "do you think that I would tell you?"

Bubu, Attila's brothel-size former hockey teammate who would soon carry a business card reading UNEMPLOYED HOCKEY PLAYER, laughed so hard, he almost choked on a plate of pig's feet.

Gabor Orban, another of Attila's teammates and his longtime robbery accomplice, settled in for a long day of questioning in his jail cell: "That's right," he told a commando unit. "I'm not surprised at all. But that doesn't mean I knew."

Istvan Szopko, the credit fraud specialist who'd become Attila's cellmate only the previous day but had known the Whiskey Robber legend for years, told police what they already knew: "With him, anything is possible."

And George Magyar, Attila's former-mayoral-candidate lawyer, began to formulate his press statement: "It is unlikely the police will ever find a trace of my client," he would say. "He is much too precise."

All of them, except for Attila's ex-accomplice and cellmate (who were already behind bars), were shadowed by undercover agents and were among the 214 Whiskey Robber associates whose phones were tapped in the apparent hope that authorities might outmaneuver "the century's most persistent, cautious, and most wanted" bank robber.

Thus began the largest manhunt in postcommunist Eastern Europe's history.


Excerpted from Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein Copyright © 2004 by JULIAN RUBINSTEIN. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Andrei Codrescu
The vivid and riveting story of Attila Ambrus, Transylvanian-born immigrant, outlaw, and gentleman….This is a grand thriller, perhaps the first of a genre.
Author of Wakefield
Gary Shteyngart
Punchy, hilarious and apparently even true….Mr. Rubinstein has committed a high-wire, bravado act of journalism.
best-selling author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook
Arthur Phillips
Julian Rubinstein deserves to be read, and Attila Ambrus deserves to be America's favorite gangster-goalkeeper.
best-selling author of Prague

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
appleshark More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was going to be another boring nonfiction book. But somehow Rubeinstein intertwined truth with entertainment. It's a long read, but really worth it. I will be recommending this to my family and friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
A bit overrated. I originally read this book as a hockey fan after seeing good reviews for it. It is very funny but it hasn't lived up to all of the hype.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The subtitle tells it all - a true story of bank heists, ice hockey, Transylvanian pelt smuggling, moonlighting detectives and broken hearts. Hilarious in a tragi-comic way, instructive and myth-busting, but all around a wild ride.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing book and the only bad thing I can say about it is that it had to end! This book really hit the spot. I think it's great how Attila is the type of guy who take responsabiliy for his actions. Anyway, if you read this book you won't be sorry, plus you get a little bit of a history lesson! It would make a great movie