#25 / Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case

Following a lovely summer break, Mrs. P. kicks off with a review of Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (London: Penguin/Michael Joseph, 2012 [2011]). An effectively-written courtroom drama that asks some big legal and ethical questions.

Opening line: Later, they would all of them remember it: the floor waiter, the two elderly ladies in the lift, the married couple in the fourth-floor corridor.

Ferdinand von Schirach is a well-regarded defence lawyer based in Berlin. He first came to prominence as a writer in 2009 with the short-story collection Verbrechen [Crime], which drew heavily on the real-life cases he’d encountered during his career. It was an instant hit, spending 54 weeks at the top of the German bestseller lists, as well as critically acclaimed (the winner of the 2010 Kleist prize). A second short-story collection entitled Guilt was also extremely successful, before the publication of The Collini Case, his first full-length crime novel, in 2011.

The focus on criminality, justice and the law is as evident in The Collini Case as it was in the author’s earlier works. It’s 2001 Berlin, and young barrister Caspar Leinen is assigned the defence of an Italian national, Fabrizio Collini, the perpetrator in an apparently open-and-shut murder case at the famous Adlon Hotel. Only after accepting the brief does Leinen realise that he knew the victim, retired industrialist Hans Meyer: the latter was the grandfather of a close school-friend, who had been kind to Leinen in his youth. While considering whether or not he should continue to represent Collini, Leinen is faced with another problem: the accused refuses to reveal his motive for the crime. How then is Leinen to defend his client when the case comes to court? Leinen’s personal difficulties in representing Meyer’s murderer and his efforts to figure out a viable defence become the key concerns of the unfolding narrative.

Von Schirach is a skilled author who knows exactly which buttons to push and when to push them. However, for this reader, the plot felt a little mechanical at times, and ticked one too many predictable commercial boxes. For example, while written in an elegant, literary style, the narrative features unnecessarily detailed depictions of violence, along with oddly gratuitous sex scenes. We’re also treated to a protracted postmortem (regular visitors to this blog will know how I feel about those). 

By far the most interesting aspect of this novel for me was the legal discussion portrayed in the courtroom part of the novel. And here I find myself in a rather difficult position, as talking about this aspect of the narrative would inevitably mean breaching Mrs. P.’s spoiler rule. So I will have to content myself by saying that the discussion of genuine points of law and their impact on a genuine set of cases since the end of the 1960s was fascinating, and is not something that I’ve seen addressed this way in a German crime novel before. 

The wider impact of the novel has also been quite extraordinary. The legal points it highlights have been raised by German MPs in the Bundestag, with a Ministry of Justice commission established in 2012 to examine the larger issues raised about legislative processes in the 1960s. It’s extremely rare for a crime novel to have such an influence in the ‘real world’, and this sets it apart from others that have tackled the same subject in a very special way.

I would second Maxine’s advice over at Petrona to read the novel before seeking out further information about the author and his work. But once you’re through, you might be interested in the following:

A Spiegel piece by von Schirach in English, in which he talks a bit about his unusual family background (thanks to Maxine for this link).

An interview with the author in German in the newspaper Die Zeit, which includes discussion about the judicial issue at the heart of the trial (contains spoilers!).

This Guardian article also draws on the interview in Die Zeit (contains spoilers!).

The comments on this post may also inadvertently hint at the novel’s content…


September 2012: Ferdinand von Schirach was interviewed by Mark Lawson on Radio 4’s Front Row (Monday 17. September, 11 minutes).

May 2013: The Collini Case has been shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association International Dagger Award.

June 2013: Over at the Reactions to Reading blog, Bernadette draws attention to the CWA’s judging discussions (see CWA quote below), and asks whether worthiness should outweigh the question of quality in relation to The Collini Case. There are lots of interesting points raised, both in the post and in the comments being posted in response.

CWA statement: ‘Questions of quality led to two long discussions by the judging panel: one is whether a socially important book which is otherwise not exceptional in originality or aesthetic quality is, nonetheless, an ‘outstanding’ book; the other is the problem of exceptional violence. In both cases, the judges agree that one of crime fiction’s claims to attention is when it reveals, analyses, and publicizes issues of social concern. Crime fiction can alert its publics to failures in laws and law enforcement, on the street, in the courts, and in legislation. It can perform the work of historical memory and bring injustices to public attention. Three of the shortlisted books raise these questions: one performs the work of publicity and has called the attention of its society to a questionable change in its laws; in two, though there is terrible violence, it is employed in the service of serious questions, and is never gratuitous’ [my emphasis].

And one last, extra note: There’s extensive discussion of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader in the comments below, which also has a courtroom section, as well as reference to Schlink’s crime novels (the ‘Selb’ series). In my capacity as an academic, I’ve written two articles on Schlink’s work, with links as follows… The first is a comparative analysis of the crime novel Selbs Justiz (which opens the ‘Selb’ series) and The Reader in the journal German Life and Letters (2006). The second looks at the controversies created in critical circles by The Reader, both in Germany and in the English-speaking world (German Monitor, 2013). It’s nearly twenty years since The Reader was published, and critical reaction to the novel and the film continues to be extremely polarised.

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