Crime by Ferdinand von Schirach
Text Publishing $42,/P>
There's the boy who kills sheep and gouges out their eyes. There's the young man who wishes literally to eat his girlfriend but who angrily denies he is a Hannibal Lecter figure. A young musician is involved in an incestuous relationship with her mutilated brother, then drowns him in a mercy killing. A 72-year-old doctor ends his unhappy marriage of many years by smashing his wife's skull with an axe.
And there's plenty more where those cheerful stories came from in this chilling collection by German defence lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach.
Von Schirach is peculiarly well placed to deal with matters of crime and guilt, as a prominent advocate whose clients have included the East German bureaucrat Gunter Schabowski, who was held responsible for the deaths of refugees killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall. He is also the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, the convicted Nazi war criminal who was head of the Hitler Youth and the notorious gauleiter (branch party leader) of Vienna.
It is suggested these stories are based on his own cases and if this is even only partly true the Berlin crime scene makes ours look very banal indeed. The characters and situations are reminiscent of the Gothic world of the tales of the Brothers Grimm in their original, unsanitised versions.
They are told in a clinical, lucid style with no attempt to heighten the impact, which is probably just as well for the dispassionate tone contributes to their staying the right side of any lurch into melodrama and to the grip the narratives have on the reader. Von Schirach is a natural storyteller with an eye for the compelling detail and a sure sense of structure.
There is, too, more to these stories than the cheap thrill of the gruesome crime. Defence lawyers anywhere have, or they develop, some innate sympathy with the perpetrators of crime and von Schirach's theme is that even at the extremes of behaviour there is a common humanity, a sense of there but for the grace of God go I.
In his foreword he quotes the words of an uncle who was a judge: "Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem." This is not a view that supporters of the Sensible Sentencing Trust might favour but in at least some of these stories von Schirach commands respect for the idea.
But the gap from the average criminal to, for instance, the professional assassin who accounts for two small-time thieves unlucky enough to take him on and to the implacably vengeful Japanese art collector does stretch the universality of the human condition about as far as an ordinary reader might go.
Bleak though von Schirach's world is, he does provide a engrossing and troubling read and there are flickers of light with one tale unexpectedly producing what, even by Mills and Boon standards, is a happy ending.
John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer