by Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Knopf, 2012 143 pages; $24
A happily married couple’s bright future is destroyed by a child’s thoughtless prank. Chance prevents a young man from committing a horrific murder he has been planning. A wife takes up shoplifting as a remedy for her unfulfilled desire. The victim of a case of mistaken identity misses making any claim for restitution from the state by mere days. A self-made man arranges to rescue his half-brother (whom he has never met) from charges of foreign drug smuggling only to discover that his sibling is irredeemable.
Such is the tone of most of the tales in this new collection of short stories from Ferdinand von Schirach, one of Germany’s most prominent defense attorneys. Like the stories in “Crime,” von Schirach’s previous collection, most of these new stories are surprising and violent, often very brutal.
“Guilt” is a small book: Some of its 15 stories are only a few pages long. The author remains focused on German law and how it is interpreted. This time, though, he examines the nature of guilt, but with the same quiet, studied objectivity that surely unsettled readers of his previous collection. The voice of each story remains the same, too: that of a defense attorney as unemotional as the crimes are violent.
“Funfair,” the opening story, anticipates most of the others. A local music group at a summer festival plays a polka while the woman the musicians have raped and beaten hovers near death under their bandstand. During his first actual brush with the law, their young defense attorney comes of age. In “The Briefcase,” a courier is stopped with a briefcase full of photographs of corpses, yet must be set free because there is no law against carrying such photographs.
In “Snow,” an elderly man is manipulated to free a heroin dealer. There are terrifying results. Surely the masterwork in the collection is “The Illuminati,” in which the bullying of a new student at an all-boys school results in the inadvertent death of a teacher who has taken the boy under her wing.
Yet von Schirach unexpectedly provides respite from violence of his world. At the center of “The Key” is a hapless criminal trying to rescue a key from the stomach of a dog in his care. What results is a goofy unfolding of events in a manner that is worthy of The Three Stooges. “Secrets,” less than three pages long, closes the volume with a sly wink as a delusional man, accompanied by his lawyer, identifies himself to a psychiatrist as Ferdinand von Schirach and his lawyer as him: “I think he has a severe problem.”
As were those in “Crime,” the stories in “Guilt” are hypnotic and unadorned accounts of actual cases of one of Germany’s most celebrated attorneys. Ferdinand von Schirach delves into contemporary hearts of darkness and once again mesmerizes with the matter-of-factness of their tales.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.