I picked up this courtroom drama after my German BFF read it. She had been intrigued after the storming reviews of von Schirach’s two novellas (published in England together as Crime & Guilt), and knowing a bit about the author’s reputation as one of Germany’s leading criminal lawyers. Drawing on his own expertise, the author creates stories around darker quirks in contemporary law and ethical puzzles. He has also directly confronted his own family past – his grandfather was the head of the Hitler Youth. From an essay he wrote about Baldur von Schirach: “Indeed, it might just be that the only advantage of having a name like mine was that nothing could remain hidden.”
A tightly-wound thriller, it’s language is clear and concise, and the characters are well-drawn in a few strokes. Opening with the brutal killing of elderly industrialist Hans Meyer, the novel then introduces a young and ambitious defense lawyer who accepts the defense case of Herr Collini, the killer. Caspar, the lawyer, doesn’t realise at first who the victim was – Meyer was a close family friend of his, and Meyer’s granddaughter Johanna the first love of his life. Worse still, the case is close to impossible for him to defend. Collini admits he killed Meyer, but refuses to say why. Nothing in his history suggests that this previously law-abiding sixty-something Italian immigrant had any connection or motive to commit cold-blooded murder.
A genuinely tense read, the denouement falls like a hammer blow. In the end, it’s finished almost too soon, but there’s a sense that this is a realistic touch – real life does relentlessly carry on, even when individual lives are altered forever.