The Girl Who Wasn't There by Ferdinand von Schirach, trans. Anthea Bell, book review

Berlin murder tale with a Gothic touch is a guilty pleasure

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The Independent Culture

Halfway through this unsettling novel, a woman called Senja Finks – who may or may not be a Ukrainian fugitive hiding from sadistic people-trafficking pimps – re-iterates its author's favourite line of inquiry: "What is guilt?"

You might say that Ferdinand von Schirach was born to pose that question. A top defence attorney in Germany, and author of three previous books that lead crime fiction down into a dark abyss of moral uncertainty, he is also the grandson of Baldur von Schirach: the head of the Hitler Youth and Nazi Gauleiter of Vienna.

In this novel, as a reply, the troubled artist-photographer Sebastian von Eschburg merely says: "I don't know." Later, a world-weary defence lawyer will find an answer of his own: "Guilt is mankind." Eschburg has climbed out of a childhood in the decaying castle of an accursed aristocratic clan, stricken by loneliness, parental conflict and his father's covered-up suicide. In Berlin, the boy who sees colours differently makes his name as an edgy and cool photographer. He moves from fashion shoots into the sort of installations that, drawing on the voyeuristic underside of Western art, create digitally manipulated tableaux where questions of identity, pornography and sexual violence meet.

A terrifed call from an abducted girl sends the police to Eschburg's studio, where they find a grisly scene out of American Psycho. But no body emerges – even though the bloodstains on a dress belong to the artist's long-lost half-sister. Enter the shrewd and sardonic veteran defender Konrad Biegler, summoned back from a miserable stay among creepy health-fascists in an Alpine sanatorium.

Von Schirach, as much a teller of uncanny Gothic tales as a courtroom-drama merchant, always has a semi-detached relationship with crime conventions. No orthodox whodunit would wait, as he does here, until page 127 to introduce the rumpled, curmedgeonly but principled Biegler, with his conviction that "liberty is a fragile thing, sensitive and vulnerable. Only the law can protect it."

All is not as it seems. The denouement of Eschburg's trial will strike some readers as more smart than deep, although it unites the artist's and the lawyer's grasp of the existential gap between courtroom evidence and human reality.

This centaur of a story, half-study of the alienated artist with a traumatic past and half-portrait of the lawyer as cantankerous philosopher of truth, may baffle or frustrate crime buffs. Other readers will enjoy its free and quizzical approach to genre expectations – and the swift, clean, enigmatic prose that Anthea Bell translates with her flawless grace.

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