Crime and Guilt by Ferdinand von Schirach
My rating 4.5 of 5 stars
One of the great pleasures of reading detective fiction and true crime stories is to dwell for a while in a just and orderly universe where the guilty are punished, wrongs are righted and victims are vindicated. That's not a world that Ferdinand von Schirach or his characters would recognize.
Schirach is German, a criminal defense lawyer in Berlin, and his second amazing short story collection has just been published in English. If his name sounds familiar, it may be because he's the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, notorious as the first leader of the Hitler Youth and wartime governor of Vienna. The elder Schirach spent 20 years in Spandau prison for war crimes. His grandson, needless to say, has a complicated relationship with notions of guilt and innocence.
Schirach writes the way people always believe Hemingway did: short
declarative sentences that snap like a gunshot on a dry autumn
morning. A passage from his preface to Crime is as bleakly beautiful a
piece of prose as I've ever read:
We chase after things, but they're
faster than we are, and in the end we can never catch up. I tell the
stories of people I've defended. They were murderers, drug dealers, bank
robbers, and prostitutes. They all had their stories, and they weren't
so different from us. All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice;
it's very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won't bear the
weight of some people and they fall through. That's the moment that
interests me. If we're lucky, it never happens to us and we keep
dancing. If we're lucky.
Schirach's new book opens with a quotation from Aristotle—"Things are as they are"—that encapsulates his worldview in five short words. Like the stories in Crime those in Guilt start off in the third person, from the perspective of someone about to fall into a criminal act (whether as perpetrator or victim), before shifting into the first person after the crime, when the weary, almost affectless voice of an unnamed criminal defense lawyer takes over the narration. It's the voice of a soul burdened as much by the weight of history as by the miseries of the present. The world revealed in the pages of Schirach's stories has more than a whiff of noir about it: nobody's hands are clean, everyone is complicit in something, and that's just the way the world works, the way it always has been. It should probably come as no surprise to learn that Schirach spent his boyhood in a Jesuit boarding school in the Black Forest.
If you're an aficionado of short stories, you are sure to be bowled over by the punch that Schirach packs into such short, seemingly simple pieces. If you're a fan of conventional crime fiction, you will be surprised at how moving Schirach's unconventional crime stories can be. Whatever your usual taste in fiction, Schirach's books are not to be missed.