: Guilt


Stephen Gray

altlj-2012-37-1-guilt-coverFerdinand von Schirach; Text Publishing, 2012;
208pp; $22.95 (paperback)

Ferdinand von Schirach is a prominent German criminal defence lawyer whose first collection of cameo accounts of the inner workings of the German legal system, Crime (see review in Alternative Law Journal 36(1)) was published in 2011 to great acclaim.

Von Schirach’s latest collection, Guilt, will no doubt be snapped up by fans of the author’s cool, pellucid style. These are more stories of clients with a difference: a boarding-school boy, victim of an Aleister Crowley-like gang of dark fantasists (‘The Illuminati’); a respectable bourgeois whose life, like that of a hero in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, is torn apart by the capricious accusation of a child (‘Children’); hints of anonymous mass murder in Eastern Europe (‘The Briefcase’); and perhaps the best story in the collection, the backflips and connivances of a bunch of drug dealers who turn out to be just that little bit smarter than they look (‘The Key’).

Von Schirach is a beautifully accomplished stylist. He seems to have absorbed the best of what a life steeped in the law might offer a writer — precision, detachment, the ability to plunge at the logical and emotional heart of a matter. He seamlessly avoids the pomposity and verbosity characteristic of so much writing by lawyers, at least in Australia. Perhaps German lawyers are different. The style is not unlike Bernhard Schlink, another lawyer turned successful writer, with hints also of another, earlier lawyer with a secret life, the nineteenth-century Gothic fantasist ETA Hoffman.

Von Schirach has a distinct technique. It consists, partly, of the apparently random casting-together of unconnected details. He has an unteachable gift for the perfectly pitched observation that hints, somehow, at his characters’ interior life. For example, a six-year-old boy in ‘The Illuminati’ says goodbye to his parents, who have already washed their hands of him, casting him into what we have already guessed is the savage cruelty of his boarding school:

… Henry saw his mother turning back towards him one more time and waving. He saw her face through the window and he saw her saying something to his father: her red mouth moved silently, it would move forever, and he suddenly grasped that it wasn’t moving for him any more (p 26).

However, this collection as a whole is not quite as satisfying as his first. The stories are of uneven quality. Some are no more than short sketches, almost like jotted notes set down after a trial. The sparseness of his style can be a little too spare at times. It can leave the reader wanting more information. How, for example, in ‘Anatomy’, does the author know the thoughts of the would-be killer killed?

As well, certain unexplained features of the German legal system leave an Australian lawyer mystified. Why is there apparently no doctrine of complicity or common purpose for rape (‘The Funfair’)? Or no defence of provocation or battered woman syndrome for domestic violence murders (‘The Comparison’)? And the ‘golden bridge’ defence in cases of attempted murder (p 73) is odd and thought-provoking. A short set of notes at the end explaining some of these notions might help bring European law closer to Australian shores.

But these are small things. Von Schirach is undoubtedly a stylist of great gifts. His stories appeal to the senses, but his underlying sympathy with his characters helps him avoid — sometimes only just — the ‘true crime’ genre’s main pitfall, the titillating appeal of the grotesque.

STEPHEN GRAY teaches law at Monash University.

(2012) 37(1) AltLJ 69
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