Compulsively readable, though sleazy, Ferdinand von Schirach’s terse debut—11 short stories about crime and the law—arrives in English translation after spending 45 weeks on Germany’s bestseller charts. Von Schirach specializes in high-profile defenses of controversial figures: His clients included Günter Schabowski, the former East German politician accused of murdering refugees. It’s no surprise that as a controversial defense attorney, von Schirach presents 11 sympathetic accounts of criminals more to be pitied than censured. While his arguments often ring of self-justification and his narratives hew toward the tawdry, he also presents a compelling portrait of Germany in flux, adjusting to a new wave of immigrants and still quietly reckoning with its history.
Some stories are less justifiable than others. The opener, “Fahner,” regardless of its trappings, is a textbook sympathetic narrative about a longsuffering husband killing his shrewish wife. Von Schirach tries to frame it as a meditation on the decline of Prussian tradition, noting that the murderer swore he’d never leave his wife: “Fahner was not what you’d consider one of our contemporaries. His promise, once given, was inviolable.” Still, a wife-killer saga fundamentally can’t be prettied up. Trashier still are “The Cello,” which piles on incest like V.C. Andrews, “Love,” which delves into cannibalism, and “Self-Defense,” in which skinheads are beaten to death by a silent but Bronson-esque contract killer.
But before it explodes into spy-movie schlock, “Self-Defense” also offers a compelling portrait of neo-Nazi nationalist hooliganism in everyday action at a train station, opening with two young men “ambling along the platform” with their “shaved heads, military pants, Doc Martens, big strides.” Uneasy meetings between various ethnic groups and members of different classes drive the best stories: “Tanata’s Tea Bowl” and “The Hedgehog” offer brief sketches of Turkish and Lebanese families (respectively) in contemporary Germany. In “Summertime”—at nearly 40 pages, the longest story—a businessman’s relationship with a prostitute provides a look at how corporate criminals are treated, as well as the banal basics of high-class prostitution.
The trade-off is a certain sordid self-justifying tone, which only portrays immigrant groups in the context of criminality. Von Schirach generally introduces himself late into the story, presenting ingenious defenses with a straight face that isn’t entirely convincing. In all 11 stories, it’s almost impossible not to sympathize with the accused; the stories provoke suspicious amounts of pity. Even if he’s trying to examine how the law can fail to administer justice, von Schirach stacks his deck. Still, this brief collection—a zippy read at under 200 pages of workmanlike prose—is a mostly compelling use of crime fiction as social observation.