His stories bear the title Crime, but his subject, really, is guilt. This much is clear from the book's preface, labelled 'Guilt', which recounts the story of an uncle from his childhood, who was a presiding judge in a criminal court, and who would begin the stories he told the boy by saying 'most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem' (p x). Von Schirach is, he says, preoccupied with the moment we — or at least, those we label criminal — take the subtle, fatal step that separates innocence from guilt. 'All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it's very cold underneath and death is quick' (p x).
In this, of course, von Schirach is alluding to a grand theme of German cultural and legal life since World War II. It's a theme that is also central to the concerns of another German lawyer turned writer, one whose work is even better known in Australia, Bernhard Schlink. Schlink's The Reader (1997) also zooms in on that central moment when Hanna, the Nazi concentration camp guard, is interrogated at a later war crimes trial. 'What should I have done?' she asks the court. 'Should I not have signed up at Siemens?' (her employer, from where she was drafted into the SS). The court has no answer. Her guilt and her misfortune, Schlink seems to be suggesting, are at least partly composed of having been born in the wrong place and time.
Unlike Schlink's Guilt about the Past (2009), von Schirach does not analyse such questions from a philosophical or legal perspective. His perspective, rather, is that of the storyteller. His writing is shorn of the unnecessary, let alone the self-important extemporising which characterises the writing of so many lawyers who, in their later years, have a mind to take up the pen. His concern is not with theory or with his own mind, but with the mind of the criminal — the combination of life forces, of external and internal compulsions which drive a person into the petty, the truly shocking, or the insane. There is the museum guard Feldmayer, condemned by a clerical error to spend his life in the same room; the once-loving husband Fahner, bound by a promise he lived to regret; or the petty crooks Ozcan and Samir who stole from the wrong man. He tells the lives of such people with sympathy, or at the very least with understanding. Rarely if ever does he resort to the easy urge to condemn.
For those with an interest in criminal law, there are fascinating insights into the inner workings of German law. Von Schirach takes note of the role of the prosecutor in the German criminal trial, or the test applied in a preliminary examination, or the machinations of the law on self-defence. But these details are always given in passing. They are not digressions or dilutions of the central voice, which is dry, clinical, picking apart the sensational aspects of many of these crimes to give us the tiny, often unnoticed details which may give a truer picture, in the end, of what went to make up the crime.
Von Schirach's stories reminded me, at times, of Bret Easton Ellis, whose collection of short stories The Informers (1994) used similar techniques to hint at the relationship between the psychotic and the mundane. Among Australian authors, Helen Garner undertook a somewhat similar exploration into the nature of guilt in Joe Cinque's Consolation (2004), which also dealt with privilege and apparently inexplicable crime. It is, however, peculiarly steeped in a German tradition, both logical and humane. This book is not for the faint-hearted, but it makes a gripping, intellectually stimulating, if at times harrowing read.
STEPHEN GRAY is a Senior Lecturer in the Law Faculty, Monash University, and a writer.