Ferdinand von Schirach is not unfamiliar with crime or guilt, as one of Germany’s top defence lawyers he has spent years representing people in trouble. He also grew up in a family living with the guilt of his grandfather, a senior Nazi in charge of the Hitler Youth who stood trial at Nuremberg. But that is not what this book is about. Originally published in separate volumes, Crime & Guilt is a collection of fictionalised stories based on some of the cases he worked on.
The variety of crimes and characters depicted in these volumes is amazing and a testament to the breadth of von Schirach’s experience. What links all the stories is von Schirach’s resolution to portray even the vilest of criminals in the most humane light as possible (with the exception of “The Funfair”). I think he manages this by showing the reader the back story and the events leading up to the crime all in 3rd person narrative. I sympathised with many of the characters because of this approach – I felt I was allowed to form my own opinion about guilt. Part way through most of the stories, von Schirach inserts himself into the scene and switches to 1st person narration. He explains the German legal system and how he goes about defending his clients, but never gives his opinion on what they have done – he never judges them himself.
Some of the stories are heart breaking; the story of “Fähner”, a village doctor married to a cruel and violent wife. After many years of mental and physical abuse, he finally flips and finds himself in trouble. Or “The Cello”, a story of a brother and sister subjected to cruelty by their rich father, once free of his vice like grip, a sad accident leads to one of them committing a crime. Some of the stories are clever – The Hedgehog made me wonder at the lengths people will go to, to protect their family and how inventive they can be. There are also a couple of mad-cap stories, like “The Key”, which would make good Tarrantino or Guy Ritchie scripts. There is not a duff story in this double volume and Carol Brown Janeway has done a fantastic job with the translation. This is a great collection for readers who like true crime or bite sized crime stories. Ferdinand von Schirach has also recently written his first novel, The Collini Case, if you want to read a review, here’s a great one from Caroline.
I read this for German Literature Month (should have reviewed it last week during genre week – sorry about the delay!)