The Defender’s Dilemma: Stories of Crime and Guilt

The German defense lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach shot to literary prominence in his homeland with his first book of short stories Verbrechung (2009) and followed it up with another set of stories Schuld (2010).  Vintage has now combined stories from Verbrechung and Schuld and put them out as a two-for-one deal. The paperback is titled Crime/ Guilt and if you are fond of crime fiction and sparse writing, head for your nearest bookstore.

Schirach’s stories are steeped in the muck of human life. The sheer breadth of his characters is astounding, from the small town doctor who suffers his wife’s tortures for a lifetime before killing her in the cellar, to a sister who plays cello naked to her sick brother before drowning him in the bathtub, to the Turkish boys who have a close call with a Japanese mobster’s teapot. These stories attest to the liveliness of the author’s practice defending clients both high and low and are a distillation of these “lives.”  In fact, Schirach’s work is so heavily inspired by his career, he actually writes himself in as a character in many of the stories, performing in a dual case of retelling and subsequent authorial analyzing.  In some cases, these stories appear like sketches for a novel or a movie (no wonder then that Constantin Film has taken film options on both books and has begun filming at least two of the stories).

Generally, his fiction is not sentimental exploration of emotions or dense, psychological unravelling of court trial testimony. There is a Teutonic sparseness to the writing and its form, and much is left out in these narratives, but with the barest of strokes, Schirach sketches out a clear arc for each of the stories. In “Summertime,” Schirach reveals his sleight of hand in the courtroom that leads to the acquittal of his client, who may well have committed the crime. In “Self Defense,” he has us rooting for a quiet man who takes down two neo-Nazis at a railway station Jason Bourne-fashion only to tell us at the end that a businessman had been assassinated hours prior in similar style.

Reading the stories from Crime, I was stuck by how Berlin, the artiest of Western European capitals, comes across as a version of the Wild West. In “The Ethiopian,” a man reformed by his work in a coffee-raising village in remote Africa is undone by being repatriated to Germany; in “Bliss,” an eastern European prostitute and her lover tragically incriminate themselves in a classic comedy of errors when a client dies of a heart attack in her bed. But there is an apparent liberal ethic underlying these stories and Schirach’s sympathies lies with those judges, who can see past punishing the guilty for punishment’s sake. In the German court system, the prosecutor and the judge must maintain impartiality and the defense lawyer supports the criminal, thus making the system less adversarial and more humane in theory. But Schirach’s stories also reveal the caprice of judges who can see beyond the mistakes of the attorneys. In “Comparison,” the judge acquits a woman of killing her sleeping husband because both Schirach (again, the character) and the prosecutor miss a key piece of evidence that proves her innocence and shifts the blame to her lover. Her lover, however, remains free and is never charged because that is not the judge’s job.

In Guilt, the second part of the collection, the paragraphs are smaller and the staccato of the prose matches the episodic nature of the storytelling. “Funfair” is a less than satisfying anecdote of Schirach’s first trial when members of a brass band who had raped a young girl are set free for lack of evidence. “Anatomy” is a vignette of a man dying in a traffic accident, whose death reveals his plans to rape and dismember a woman. In “The Briefcase,” a courier discovered with a stack of grisly murder photographs in the trunk of his car during a routine traffic stop is later killed. There are more fleshed-out stories here such as “Illuminati” (hazing rituals at a boy’s boarding school go terribly wrong), and of particular note is “The Key,” where a German duo of brains and muscle importing drugs from a dubious Russian gangster outwit the gang’s Nikita-like female enforce, but in general this section resembles a lawyer’s case notes rather than furnished stories. Many of these stories in the second part have previously appeared in German newspapers, which may explain their more factual nature.

Schirach has also written a novel titled Der Fall Collini which I am sure will be translated into English as well and will give us more insight into this German crime writer’s oeuvre. He’s been lucky to receive the attention of Carol Janeway’s meticulous skills in this English translation, which communicate the Germanic mind in the cadence of the sentences and in the pitch of the words. Crime/Guilt will find a home in many crime readers’ bookshelves and deservedly so.

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One comment

  1. Rob

    Re “Summertime” could you explain the sleight-of-hand he pulled? The last paragraph certainly implies something happened but I am at a loss to see how the time change argument was wrong.

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