Posts Tagged ‘German Crime Literature’

I read Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) wonderful review of ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach (‘Verbrechen’ in German) recently and couldn’t resist getting the book.  I got it last week and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think about it.

‘Crime’ is a collection of eleven true-life stories. They are told by an unnamed narrator (who I assumed was Ferdinand von Schirach) who makes an appearance in each of those stories. Each of the stories touches on a distinct or interesting point of law. In some stories the murderer is not the real villain. In some stories it is not apparent whether a crime has been committed. In some stories though we know who committed the supposed crime, we don’t know the identity of that person – in the sense that the concerned person refuses to speak and reveal even his name. There are a few stories where the main character has a psychological issue. It is interesting to read how the law treats such people who have supposedly committed a crime.


The first thing that appealed to me about the book was the writer’s name. I always thought that Ferdinand was a Spanish name. I didn’t know that it could be German too. The second thing that I liked very much was the introduction by the author. After talking a bit about his uncle who was a judge, he talks about the book. My favourite passage in the introduction went like this :


I tell the stories of people I’ve defended. They were murderers, drug dealers, bank robbers and prostitutes. They all had their stories, and they weren’t so different from us. All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick.  The ice won’t bear the weight of some people and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me. If we’re lucky it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we’re lucky.


Beautiful, isn’t it?


The third thing that I liked about the book was how von Schirach presents some of the subtleties and processes of the law and shows how things are not as black-and-white as they seem from outside. For example in ‘Fähner’, he says this about oaths :


The most recent reform of the code of criminal procedure has dismissed the oath as an obligatory component of any sworn testimony in a criminal case. We ceased believing in it a long time ago. When a witness lies, he lies – no judge seriously thinks an oath would make him do otherwise, and oaths appear to leave our contemporaries indifferent.


In another place in the same story, von Schirach talks about punishment :


With regard to the practicalities of the case, there was nothing to defend. It was, rather, a problem of judicial philosophy : what is the meaning of punishment? Why do we punish? I used my summation to try to establish this. There is a whole host of theories. Punishment should e a deterrent. Punishment should protect us. Punishment should make the perpetrator avoid any such act in the future. Punishment should counterbalance injustice. Our laws are a composite of these theories, but none of them fitted this case exactly.


In ‘The Ethiopian’ he continues on this topic :


We punish according to someone’s guilt; we ask to what extent we can make him responsible for his actions. It’s complicated. In the Middle Ages, things were simpler : punishment was only commensurate with the act itself…Punishment in those days was a form of mathematics; every act carried a precisely established weight of retribution. Our contemporary criminal law is more intelligent, it is more just as regards life, but it is also more difficult.


In ‘Summertime’, von Schirach compares real-world crime with what happens in detective novels.


In detective novels, the person who did it confesses when he or she is screamed at; in real life, it’s not that simple. And when a man with a bloody knife in his hand is bent over a corpse, that means he’s the murderer. No reasonable policeman would believe he had only walked past by chance and tried to help by pulling the knife out of the body. The detective superintendent’s observation that a particular solution is too simple is a screenwriter’s conceit. The opposite is true. What is obvious is what is plausible. And most often, it’s also what’s right.


In one of my favourite stories, ‘Self-Defence’, von Schirach contemplates on how much self defence is acceptable when one is attacked.


When you are attacked, you have the right to defend yourself, and there is no limit to your choice of means. You may respond to a fist with a cudgel, and to a knife with a gun; you are under no obligation to choose the mildest form of counterattack. But equally, you may not overreact : if you’ve already rendered your attacker helpless with a pistol shot, you may not cut off his head for good measure. The law does not tolerate such excesses.


I loved that passage 🙂


In ‘The Ethiopian’, the author talks about the prosecutor’s role in Germany, which I found quite fascinating :


In a trial, it is the prosecutor who presents his closing argument first. Unlike in the United States or England, the prosecutor takes no position; he or she is neutral. The prosecutor’s office is neutral; it also establishes exonerating circumstances, and thus it neither wins nor loses – the only passion in the prosecutor’s office is for the law. The law is all it serves – that, and justice. That at least is the theory.


This was one of my favourite passages in the book.


The fourth thing I liked about the book was the cover. I found it very beautiful. (I loved Lizzy’s interpretation of the cover picture in her review.)


After starting the book, one day I was on my way to the grocery store and thinking about the book while walking. For some reason I started thinking about the translator’s name. And I wondered whether her name was Carol Brown Janeway or Carol Jane Brownway. The two seemed to be philosophically different (the first one had a middle name which was closer to a last name, while the second one had a middle name which was closer to a first name) and I pondered which one of them was the right name. After thinking a bit, it seemed to me that Brownway seemed to be more plausible than Janeway. Then I came back and I looked at the book cover and discovered that her name was Janeway! Have you heard of this last name before?


Ferdinand von Schirach’s prose style is simple, plain, uncomplicated, down-to-earth. The focus is on narrating the story and conveying the subtleties of law and justice. Not a single word is wasted. I thought of Hemingway’s prose when I read this book.


My favourite story in the book was ‘Self-Defence’. A middle-aged man who looks like a bank clerk is sitting on a bench near the railway station. Two thugs come by. They sense a prey there. They want to bully the man and have fun. They come near and try to have a conversation with him. The man is quiet. One of the thugs pulls out a knife and tries to hurt the man mildly so that he will talk to them. Our bank clerk looks at the two men without any expression on his face. The thugs don’t know that they have opened a bottle and a genie is going to come out. Before they know our bank clerk hero delivers lethal kungfu kicks on them and in no time they are lying on the floor. What our bank clerk hero did – whether it was legally the appropriate level of self-defence or it was excessive – the answer to this question forms the rest of the story. I loved the mysterious bank clerk hero – he rocked 🙂


Another favourite story of mine was ‘The Ethiopian’. I liked it because of my Ethiopian connection. I also liked ‘The Thorn’ for showing how a man who lives alone and does a solitary job can change fundamentally across years, ‘The Hedgehog’ where a young man who is bullied by everyone around has a parallel life as an intelligent genius and how his genius saves his family members (this story had one of my favourite lines – “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog only one thing. The judges and the prosecutors might be foxes, but he was the hedgehog and he’d learned his skills.”), ‘Tanata’s Tea Bowl’ for showing an interesting glimpse into Japanese culture and ‘Summertime’ for this line – “He told his friends that when she drank, he could see the water running down inside the throat.”  I have heard someone actually say this when he wanted to impress another about a girl’s beauty.


‘Crime’ is a wonderful addition to literature on true-crime. I can’t wait to read von Schirach’s second story collection ‘Sin’ (‘Schuld’).


I will leave you with links to other reviews of this book.


Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review

Priya’s (from Tabula Rasa) review

Lizzy’s (from Lizzy’s Literary Lives) review


Have you read ‘Crime’ by Ferdinand von Schirach? What do you think about it?

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