Ferdinand von Schirach

Ferdinand von Schirach (grandson of Baldur) is a criminal defence attorney who has now published two books of stories about his clients which have topped the best-seller lists, are being filmed and translated.

The first book was Verbrechen (August 2009). I got it as a birthday present this year. I thought it was wonderful. The stories are based on real cases, but mixed up so the characters can’t be identified. Schirach uses a minimalist style. In a German interview (FAZ), he says that most crime novelists never experience a crime, so they sit in cafés and fill their books with descriptions.

Die meisten Leute, die Krimis schreiben, erleben keine Krimis, sondern sitzen in Prenzlauer Berg bei einem Cappuccino und denken sich die Welt aus. Deswegen müssen sie sehr ausführlich beschreiben, wie jemand mit Messer und Gabel gegessen hat, dass die Tischdecke ausgefranst war, dass der Himmel sich zuzuziehen begann . . . Ich hab’ da einfach Glück. Ich hab’ einfach diese Geschichten und kann die dann auch relativ kurz schreiben.

The second book was Schuld (August 2010), which I borrowed a few weeks ago. This time I was disappointed. The book lender thought these must be the stories which were rejected for the first book. I thought Schirach might be indulging himself following his success on the market.

The first book told the stories in a minimalist style. The second one seemed to me as if someone had taken a haiku and spoilt it with emotions and the author’s opinions.

Denis Scheck said the books are OK but they are not really literature, and their only real appeal is that they appear to reflect ‘reality’ (I quote from memory, and hope I am not distorting it).

Take the end of the first story in Schuld:

Nach der Haftprüfung gingen mein Studienfreund und ich zum Bahnhof. Wir hätten über den Sieg der Verteidigung sprechen können oder über den Rhein neben den Gleisen oder über irgendetwas. Aber wir saßen auf der hölzernen Bank, von der die Farbe abblätterte, und keiner wollte etwas sagen. Wir wussten, dass wir unsere Unschuld verloren hatten und dass das keine Rolle spielte. Wir schwiegen auch noch im Zug in unseren neuen Anzügen neben den kaum benutzten Aktentaschen, und während wir nach Hause fuhren, dachte wir an das Mädchen und die ordentlichen Männer und sahen uns nicht an. Wir waren erwachsen geworden, und als wir ausstiegen, wussten wir, dass die Dinge nie wieder einfach sein würden.

This goes too far for me. There is more of this in this second book, but some in the first too. I reread that, and I still love the story of the two neo-Nazis in the station (Notwehr).

In an interview in New Books in German, Schirach described his technique of mixing stories:

The essence of each story is true. You have to imagine it as one of those beautiful old printers’ typesetting cases. When you have been a Criminal Defence Lawyer your whole life, then you have quite a stock of typesetting cases full of people, events and little episodes. And I then put these together anew for a story. The only thing that I don’t change is the basic tone of a case, the motive, the atmosphere.

Of course, we are spoilt for simple and thought-provoking stories of crime by some German lawyers’ weblogs, such as law blog and Strafprozesse und andere Ungereimtheiten.

Thanks to Katy Derbyshire for the link to New Books in German.

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