It is time to acknowledge that I’ve fallen off the TBR Double Dog Dare bandwagon. In my defence I’d been struggling with a lurgy for the best part of a week and suffered a relapse last Sunday. That German crime novel that dropped through the post (thanks, Little Brown) was just irresistible in my weakened state.
I’ve been meaning to read more von Schirach since his debut short story collection blew me away 4 years ago. Crime fiction written by a prominent defence lawyer is always going to offer an interesting perspective. So interesting, that despite said lurgy, I whizzed through the latest, The Girl who Wasn’t There, in just over a couple of hours. And then, because nothing other than an afternoon of coughing and spluttering lay ahead, I repeated the exercise with his previous release, The Collini Case. (Offered by way of explanation in case I start to muddle up the details.)
Schirach’s style is dispassionate – what else would a seasoned lawyer be? The story in The Girl Who Wasn’t There is presented in spare prose – something that doesn’t usually thrill me – but there was something fascinating about the main character Sebastian von Eschburg. Von Schirach takes his time telling of the distancing effects that accumulate through von Eschburg’s childhood and young adulthood, and the sudden tragedy that makes the damage permanent. Still von Eschburg shows remarkable resilience, becoming a renowned photographer. An observer rather than a participant in human life, preserving emotional distance from everyone … until a meeting with a stranger precipitates an emotional meltdown.
The second part of the novel sees an anonymous man, obviously von Eschburg, being interrogated and ostensibly tortured, by the police. He is accused of murder, despite there being no body and no clues as to the identity of the murder victim The third part follows the court case, as von Eschburg is defended by an experienced lawyer, Biegler, who hasn’t the slightest interest in the celebrity of his client or the absence of the body. “All that interests me in your case is the question of torture.”
This is verified during the case when Biegler gets to interview the officer accused of such. The moral argument is aired, as is the legal, and it is a thought-provoking session, if I may call it that. My viewpoint, curiously enough, dependent on von Eschburg’s innocence or guilt. Established irrevocably by a final twist, which can be predicted by the careful story-telling in the first section. Clever, clever, clever.
Caspar Leinen, the rookie lawyer in The Collini Case has a lot to learn, particularly about dispassion. He finds himself called to defend a 67 year-old Italian guestworker who has shot dead an 82 year old industrialist, Hans Meyer. Initially champing at the bit in his first major case, his enthusiasm wanes when it transpires that Meyer is the grandfather of his childhood unrequited love, and a man he remembers with great affection. When he seeks to withdraw, he is given the following advice:
So? In the next trial the murder may remind you of some tragic childhood experience of your own. And the case after that could keep reminding you of a girlfriend you once had who had been raped. Then again, you might not like your client’s nose, or you’ll think the drugs he deals are the worst evils to afflict mankind. You want to be a defence lawyer, Herr Leinen, so you must act like one.
His advisor is the prosecutor and the fascination in this story is the relationship that develops between the two men, despite their roles as professional adversaries. The race is on to discover motive which, in the face of a defendant unwilling to help himself, Leinen does, demonstrating talent, tenacity and dedication. It costs him a great deal to reveal it but the lawyer in him takes over.
Taking the ages of victim and perpetrator into account, it becomes obvious that a secret from the Nazi past is involved and a stain on German Justice. One that appeared to be very much in the German consciousness in 2011 when the novel was originally published. A few months after publication, the novel constituted one of the points of reference for a committee appointed to reappraise the mark left on the Ministry of Justice by the Nazi past, proving that von Shirach’s fictions are very much based in strange legal truths.
The Girl Who Wasn’t There/ The Collini Case (Both translated by Anthea Bell)
© Lizzy’s Literary Life (2007-2015)