Book Review: Defense Attorney-Turned-Author Revives Noir for the 21st Century in ‘Crime’ and ‘Guilt’
by James Hardy
This profile gives the reader a good idea of what’s in store inside. Von Schirach is a hard-boiled European and a no-nonsense observer of crime, the people who commit it, its victims, and sometimes those falsely accused. His approach is matter-of-fact—"Guilt" opens with Aristotle’s maxim, "things are as they are"—his diction minimalist. He has read his Hemingway and catalogues the felonies and misdemeanors in his stories with an austere German disdain for sentimentality.
This approach is nowhere in sharper focus than in "Funfair," the first story in "Guilt," the more recent work. On a sweltering summer afternoon in a small town, a troupe of amateur musicians, aroused by a beer spilled on their 17-year-old serving girl’s white T-shirt, gang rape and leave her for dead. The perpetrators are "respectable men with respectable jobs: insurance salesman, car dealer, skilled carpenter. You would have no cause to find fault with them."
This fiction is thinly disguised fact. Our unnamed narrator, in "Funfair" and all of von Schirach’s stories, is the author himself. Defending one of the men is the narrator’s first case out of law school. The gang rape was reported, anonymously, by one of the eight musicians. The girl cannot identify her attackers. The police pollute the crime scene, destroying any useable DNA, and the treating doctors do the same in their rush to help the victim.
The defense team devises a simple strategy: All of the men must remain silent. Any one of them could be the innocent party who called in the crime. When the case is dismissed for lack of evidence, the accused "went back to their wives and children and their lives. They paid their taxes and kept their credit good, they sent their children to school, and none of them spoke of the matter again." Of himself and an equally green colleague on the defense team, von Schirach writes, "We knew we’d lost our innocence and that this was irrelevant."
I will not spoil other stories by revealing their outcomes, but if you appreciate how von Schirach depicts the rational counselor’s role when confronted with the Sturm und Drang of ordinary life in "Funfair," particularly the duties and burdens of a criminal defense attorney, then you will not be disappointed by the other 26 stories in "Crime" and "Guilt."
Among the gripping plotlines are the narrator’s retention by a prestigious, multinational law firm to defend a mysterious, unnamed professional killer ("Self-Defense" from "Crime"); a man whose life changes radically after he is accused of sexual abuse of a child ("Children" from "Guilt"); and several cases involving the mentally ill, including out-and-out psychopaths and one civilized cannibal ("Anatomy" and "Secrets" from "Guilt"; "Green," "The Thorn," and "Love" from "Crime").
At times, von Schirach renders colorful tales reminiscent of the sordid underworlds of Irvine Welsh. At others, he illustrates the banality of evil in the everyday with clinical detachment and precision. The stories are bleak, but sensitive to the causative forces in life and the human beings affected by them.
Beneath these noirish tales are the author’s meditations on human nature and the problems and practical limitations of justice. Von Schirach explains the machinations of a police investigation and the sometimes arbitrary considerations that go into bringing criminal charges, particularly in "Summertime," the centerpiece story of "Crime." In "Justice," ("Guilt") where a misspelling leads to the wrongful imprisonment and conviction of a destitute man for assault, von Schirach shows how the state, through nothing more than bureaucratic incompetence and class prejudice, can wrongly strip away a person’s liberty.
In "The Other Man," ("Guilt") von Schirach ruminates on intent and its role in crimes and their punishment. He has an insight into the mind of a sentencing judge, exposing the arbiter’s fundamental humanity: "Of course, judges do not have to know the motives of a defendant in order to be able to sentence him. But they want to know why people do what they do. And only when they understand can they punish the defendant in a way that is commensurate with his guilt. If that understanding is lacking, the sentence will almost always be longer." Von Schirach, with typical restraint, does not belabor the point or propose judges should be immune from prejudice. His mission is to illustrate, not to condemn ("things are as they are").
Recently, von Schirach published an essay about his grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, who led the Hitler Youth and was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg.1 In the essay, distinguishing his grandfather’s evil acts from everyday crime, he writes: "Most of the guilty parties are not that different from us. They made a wrong move, dropped out of normal society, or felt that their life was hopeless. Often it's only a matter of chance whether a person becomes a perpetrator or a victim. Indeed, killing those we love and killing ourselves are very similar."2
Perhaps this family history explains von Schirach’s obsession with guilt and his nuanced view of crime, its perpetrators, and its victims. "In the end," he writes, condemning his grandfather’s acts as particularly horrid given his privileged background, "a person's degree of guilt is always also determined by their circumstances."3 The final story in "Crime," "The Ethiopian," is an artful exploration of this premise.
For the most part, von Schirach’s observations on justice are universal. Although set in Germany, most of his narratives could take place in the United States with little alteration. This is a point he makes in the afterword to "Crime," concluding "the differences between our two justice systems are insignificant."
By this, I believe von Schirach means that the passions, prejudices, and other human drives that underlie our ideas of justice are the same regardless of the system employed to mete it out. I agree with the general principle, but his stories demonstrate von Schirach is wrong in one specific sense. The sentences German criminals receive in these stories are extraordinarily lenient by American standards.
A man is convicted of "endangering someone by inflicting bodily injury," after beating another man close to death with an ashtray. He gets three-and-a-half years in prison. The rapist of a 14-year-old girl receives six-and-a-half years. A man convicted of 24 counts of child sexual abuse receives three-and-a-half years. Three boarding school boys ruthlessly torture a schoolmate, including nearly suffocating him with a noose. They receive three years each in juvenile detention.
In the United States, the violent beating likely would have been an attempted murder, penalized with three to four times the prison term. The juveniles likely would have been charged as adults and perhaps receive several years in prison. The sex offenders could be subject to an indefinite sentence, potentially lasting a lifetime. This last reality is particularly chilling because, as von Schirach reveals, one of the alleged sex offenders in his stories was falsely accused and convicted. The German system allows this offender to get some semblance of his life back. Ours would not.
The United States incarcerates its citizens at a greater rate and for longer than almost any nation in the world. The German system, at least in von Schirach’s stories, takes a far less punitive approach to sentencing. Despite von Schirach’s claim, this is significant.
In any event, both short story collections can be enjoyed on a purely visceral level. Though "Crime" is grittier and more fantastic, it is polemical at times. The stories in "Guilt" speak for themselves. While both books are more than worthwhile, "Guilt" is better-crafted, demonstrating von Schirach’s maturation as a writer.
Von Schirach’s book jacket photo suggests that these days this Camus of crime fiction is more likely found in a smoky café, pen and notebook at hand, than in the courtroom. His law practice surely provided ample material for future endeavors. His readers are grateful. D
1 See “Why I Cannot Answer Questions about My Grandfather,” Sept. 23, 2011, Der Spiegel, bit.ly/PPHMdB.