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

4.04 of 5 stars 4.04  ·  rating details  ·  1,978 ratings  ·  357 reviews
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 and was a terrible professional hockey goalkeeper. During the 1990s, while playing for the biggest hockey team in Budapest, Ambrus took up bank robbery to make ends meet. Arr ...more
Paperback, 352 pages
Published September 13th 2005 by Back Bay Books (first published 2004)
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Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
273rd out of 3,036 books — 5,004 voters
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Community Reviews

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R.S. Carter
He was the main conspirator in dozens of armed robberies in post-communist Hungary in the nineties, but the people of Hungary saw Attila Ambrus like this:

He is the folk hero of Hungary, although he never redistributed his wealth. He stole from the state, but did pour the money back into the economy through his luxurious life style. Never violent, never intentionally harming a soul, giving the bank tellers flowers and maybe a little flirtation while he was half-in-the-bag, knee-walking drunk, Att
Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts

Budapest, Hungary

Hungary's most beloved criminal and one of the most memorable, fascinating and likable characters ever written about.

The "whiskey robber" was a simple man named Attila Ambrus from a small village in eastern Transylvania, Romania. Attila Ambrus got into trouble at a very young age for petty theft. In 1988, he illegally crossed Romania's
This book is as fun to read as it is enlightening. Every once in a while there comes along a person who leads such an unlikely life that it would be impossible to invent them. In addition to the story of the protagonist himself, the story of post-communist Hungary is a major part of the book as well. Everything that you would need to put the life of Attila (the whiskey robber) in context of the world that he lived in is provided in vivid detail. This book would have been fascinating to me even w ...more
Feb 12, 2013 Marieke rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Marieke by: Cait's shelves
I wasn't expecting this to be this good. First, i'd never heard of the subject, Atilla Ambrus. I was alive and well at the end of the Soviet era and totally into Eastern and Central European stuff. how did i miss this story? Thank you Julian Rubinstein for making sure it didn't slip by me.

Second, i was alarmed when i heard the long list of readers at the beginning of the recording. Normally i don't go in for that type of audio book, but this was done so incredibly well i want to give this book
Apr 10, 2013 Pat rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: travelers to Hungary, true crime fans, nearly anyone
The audio edition of this book is fantastic--really a radio comedy/drama. It is introduced by Attila Ambrus himself, the eponymous Whiskey Robber, as he served time in jail for his string of non-violent bank robberies in Budapest in the 1990s. The author is the main narrator, with voices supplied by a wildly diverse array of people from comedians Dmetri Martin and Eugene Mirman to author Gary Shteyngart, and music by One Ring Zero.

It is the crazy-but-true story of how Attila, a hapless and basic
Pat Cooney
While the title and descriptions will suggest to you that this is a book about a criminal ice hockey goaltender who also was a smuggler - and it is, don't you worry - it's selling itself short. This is a book about postcommunist Hungary, particularly Budapest, and is told with amazing love and care through the lens of one Atilla Ambrus who very well might become your favorite bank robber.

While Rubinstein does such a good job of describing Hungarian culture and identity - to the point that I fee
Jack Clemens
When I read a non-fiction book I'm usually looking for a few things: one, does the tale center on a serious conflict? Two, is its breadth both on the macro and the micro level--I enjoy reading about how the small and the large aspects of society interact and touch, and thirdly I'm looking for humor, which from my experience is one of the hardest styles to implement in print. If a book has one of these, it's usually something I'll enjoy, but if it has all three I'm going to make sure to write abo ...more
Ryan Chapman
Mar 05, 2007 Ryan Chapman rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
Shelves: nonfiction
This debut is the perfect summer read: compelling as hell, witty, illuminating, and really unbelievable for a nonfiction title. This is the story of Attila Ambrus, who in the 1990's in Hungary started as the most dedicated and talentless professional hockey goalie in the world, moonlighting first as a Transylvanian pelt smuggler and then as Eastern Europe's most legendary bank robber.

Filled with incredible details, from his habit of robbing while blisteringly drunk to the ubiquitous corruption
Rebecca Skane

Wow. A true crime story that reads better than fiction. I can see why the country of Hungary fell in love with him. The gentleman Whiskey Robber, the folk hero of the masses, Attila Ambrus. Full review: Ballad of the Whiskey Robber Book Review.
Craig Dube
The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber was pitched to our bookclub as a non-ficton that reads like fiction. I find this to be a very accurate assessment. The story is of Attila Ambrus, a young man who immigrates from Romania to Hungary to carve out a new life. When he comes to Hungary, he makes his way onto the local semi-pro hockey team as both a janitor and a 3rd string goalie. Attila struggles to make ends meet until he stumbles across the lucrative profession of pelt smuggling. However the pelt sm ...more
This book is totally nuts, in a good way.

Imagine if the movie Airplane were instead about a serial bank robber. That's the way this true-crime story reads. Very few times and places had the combination of societal and individual volatility of Eastern Europe in the 1990's, and author Rubinstein does a good job of convincing the reader that Hungary was the maddest of the mad-cap countries freed from the yoke of Soviet-style communism.

I cannot really discuss much about the characters or the plot wi
This is quite a complex true tale that Rubinstein briliantly weaves intertwining the corrupt politics of 1990 Hungary, Ice Hockey, Bank heists and just trying to make ends meet month to month (paycheck to paycheck or heist to heist). I guess that is why it was given the title it was given. Don't be overwhelmed by the list of characters provided to you in the beginning of the book. It really isn't that hard to remember who is who, due to the fact that as some new characters fade in, others fade o ...more
Tom Buske
This book was great. I don't know which made me laugh more, the main character being so drunk when robbing a bank that he slurred his words so badly that the tellers just laughed at him or one of the Keystone Kops chasing him being nicknamed "Mound of Assshead". All this set against a backdrop of post-Communist Hungary trying to adapt to a capitalist economy and a democratic government. All in all, an extremely enjoyable read.
Patti Meyerdirk
Having lived in the neighboring country of Slovakia during this time period and now living in the city of the setting, this was an incredible read to me! It brought insight into the culture and thinking of those around me that I had not had before reading it. I was also able to relate to much of the atmosphere and ways of the people. The author was very accurate in his descriptions of the people, culture, and setting. His understanding of the transition from communistic rule to a democratic soci ...more
On top of the fact that the story is inherently fascinating (and true), the historical, political and social context of the book is thoroughly enjoyable due to the author's dry humor. Such humor even helps to express the plight of the post-Soviet Hungarian. The absurd descriptions of the police force would make the sternest reader smile and the history and politics will interest even the most avid renouncer of history. The story and its tone give the reader an overall endearing look at how Budap ...more
*This review contains spoilers*

This was, without a doubt, one of the funniest, most entertaining true stories that I've ever read about. It's the kind of story that could only happen in a certain time and place. The place is Budapest, Hungary. The time is 1988-2000.

As the narrative begins, Hungary is slowly transitioning into free market capitalism. It would not be an easy ride. As the Soviet bloc collapsed, the vultures started circling. There were many new opportunities for the people of Hunga
Ok, so normally I don't write reviews for Goodreads—got to save the big thoughts for the paying customers. But this book is the first I have given a five star rating to. It is funny, astonishing, and incredibly reported. I read it in absolute awe. Julian Rubinstein pulled off something awesome. Read it now.
Jan 30, 2008 Pat/rick rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Ex-goalies, inmates, drinkers, World Bank wonks
Recommended to Pat/rick by: Lango
The subtitle says so much, so truthfully. The book promises and delivers. We would find it hard to create a more unlikely hero or a more bizarre, compelling story. Post-communist implosion and Wild West vigilanteism meet Robin Hood, Zorro, and the Wu-Tang Clan.
This book is amazing, it has the makings for a perfect movie. I hope they don't do that, but every chapter of this guys life is great. Plus, you learn a lot about hungary and what the fall of communism meant on a larger scale than just the berlin wall coming down.
One of the better works of non-fiction I've read recently. I highly recommend this book to everyone. Just a fun, fast-paced read. And if Scott is telling the truth, apparently they're making it a movie. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.
Sep 18, 2008 David rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to David by: jonathan cooper
A highly entertaining book that I could not believe was a true story. Add a dash of contemporary Hungarian culture, and voila! Funny, insightful, and cool. A must read for any Hungarian.
Jill Edmondson
OMG! What a fabulous story!!! This is nonfiction, but it reads like a novel. Highly recommend this book!!! "Chicky Panther" is quite the character...
Far more than an entertaining heist story, Ballad of the Whiskey Robber is an engrossing and touching biography of an everyman with a good heart on the wrong side of history (and yes, ok, also the law). It's also an insightful commentary on the fall of communism and the brutal introduction of capitalism to the former Soviet bloc, as well as an oddly charming travelogue of Budapest and Transylvania. In fact, it speaks volumes about the Hungarian capital that even after reading about the crime, co ...more
It took me a few years to finally pick up this book, and I am so glad that I did. Not only was it highly recommended from friends, but I actually knew the author. I'm sorry I waited so long. This book was quite amazing, and I actually cried at the end because my journey with Attila was coming to an end. I took a Contemporary Central and Eastern European Lit class in college and have always had a love for the folklore of the region. The story of Attila really brings to life the world created afte ...more
Jan 05, 2011 Natalie rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: everyone, it's great!
I have recommended this book more times than I can count! julian rubinstein writes a page-turning history, of a man, a place, and a series of events that proves once again that real life is stranger than fiction!

THE BEST! You'll be in post communist Budapest / Hungary / Romania during the 1990's. One reviewer said of it: "I love this book for giving me insight into a country I had little knowledge of".

Another reviewer said he saw "Atilla Ambrus – as a doorway to the bigger story, that of the t
I had no idea that Hungary was considered at one time something like the scourge of Europe, at least I got that impression from reading this. Here's a little of the start of the book:

Hungary has always been unlucky. In the approximately eleven hundred years since the handlebar mustachioed Chief Árpád rode into the Carpathian basin in 896 and founded Hungary, the country has been plundered so relentlessly that defeat could be considered the national pastime."

The author then goes on to recount ho
If robbing stores is not enough, doing jobs such as a gravedigger, a janitor, and a professional hockey player would be perfect, or so you might think. This seemed to be a problem for a man named Attila Ambrus, a mislead Romanian. The book, “Ballad of a Whiskey Robber” by Julian Rubinstein, follows Attila through all of his wild adventures as a criminal. Rubenstein does a fantastic job by explaining the harsh days that Attila would have to face on a daily basis. The book was based truly off of ...more
There's just something about crime. Whether it's enjoying capers like Ocean's 11 or The Great Train Robbery, we tend to romanticize the dastardly wrongdoer despite whatever his or her heinous crimes might be. I've yet to meet someone who was rooting for the cops to catch Hannibal Lector when they were reading Silence of the Lambs. Whatever it is, something happens when we hear the story of someone who flaunts authority and just does something so outside the bounds of society's rules that despite ...more
Dan Spencer
You just can't make up stuff like this. This mesmerizing tale reads like fictional satire, but it's all true. With his exquisitely detailed writing, Rubinstein immerses readers into Hungarian culture circa the post-Communist 1990s. You can tell the author loved delving into this bizarre story, which takes us Westerners into a cubbyhole of the world we rarely see. (When people talk of the Third World... well, Hungary could be described as the Second World; not completely backwater but riddled wit ...more
Mary Rose
The Ballad of the Whiskey Robber seems so fantastical that I almost didn't believe it was true, but for the section in the middle of the book filled with photos of Attila Ambrus and others connected to him while on his crime spree.

This book wasn't just a story of Ambrus's unlawful career. It also told the story of the Eastern Bloc in the 80's and it's journey toward democracy in the 90's and early 2000's. Most of what I know of communism was gleaned from American high school history classes, so
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In 2012, Attila Ambrus (aka, the Whiskey Robber) was released from prison in Hungary. I flew over to be with him. It was an odd and thrilling (and freezing) day on the Slovakian border.

(Watch him walk out of prison here:
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