Chatto & Windus, £12.99, 184pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Crime, By Ferdinand von Schirach, trans. Carol Brown Janeway

Ferdinand von Schirach is a prominent defence counsel in Germany. From his hundreds of cases, he has fashioned this bizarre and unsettling collection of 11 stories about crimes and their consequences. Von Schirach accepts that his debut work of fiction has sturdy roots in real events. But he has covered his trail, in this German bestseller, so as to make the source materials untraceable. The author is also the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, the half-American Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna who denounced Hitler at Nuremberg and served out 20 years in Spandau.

A nameless lawyer opens his casebook. From its pages spring horror and cruelty, of course. "Legal history abounds with the unimaginable," we hear when the subject of cannibalism arises. Yet alongside the psychosis and malevolence, the vendettas and bloodbaths, noble intentions go gruesomely awry, loyalty and compassion lead into fatal quagmires, and a presiding imp of the perverse snatches jet-black comedy from the grimmest – or Grimmest - deeds. At the bottom of this box of ghoulish tricks, a faint hope breathes.

After decades of downtrodden devotion to his wife, a GP in Rottweil takes up his axe: "hand-forged in Sweden... perfectly greased and rust-free". Two Kreuzberg lads – one Turkish, one Greek – unwittingly steal a precious heirloom from the swanky villa of a Japanese tycoon. His vengeance is a Chaucerian fable in its narrative logic; a Peckinpah movie in its grisly décor. Equus-like, Count von Nordeck's taciturn son, who sees people as numbers, takes to mutilating sheep. Then a local girl goes missing. On a Berlin station platform, two neo-Nazi hooligans pick on a meek commuter. Within seconds, both are spectacularly dead.

As von Schirach's uncle used to say (a revered judge, until he put his hunting shotgun into his mouth), "guilt always presents a bit of a problem". Most of these perpetrators count as guilty as charged. But beyond the crime arcs such a vast spectrum of motive and memory that each felony stretches back down a dozen paths of interpretation. Their young lives cursed by a brutish building-contractor father, Theresa and Leonhard cement a brother-and-sister pact against the world. At length, in her prison cell, Theresa will mark a passage from The Great Gatsby for her lawyer's attention: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past".

Crime would command the attention due a carnival freak-show if von Schirach's crisp, swift prose (well captured by Carol Brown Janeway) did not lend it such laconic authority. Save in the sparest of hints, he shuns forensic psychology. Each tale whips along, a shock at every turn, like some beast with eyes of red-hot coal panting down a forest track at night. For, courtroom procedure aside, the spirit of the German-language Märchen really drives this book: eerie tales of the uncanny, as practised by Hoffmann, Kleist, the Grimms and even Kafka.

Yet we will end in sunshine. Michalka, loveless foundling from "a terrible fairy-tale", finds redemption in the coffee-growing highlands of Ethiopia. Though his past drags him back to Berlin, in handcuffs, German law in its new, cool wisdom will find a further truth: "A bank robbery really isn't always just a bank robbery." And a sheaf of curious cases can be a work of literature as well.

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before