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

Reviewed,Boyd Tonkin
Friday 01 April 2011 00:00 BST

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.

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