Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt – Schuld (2010)

After having read Ferdinand von Schirach’s excellent first collection CrimeVerbrechen (here is my review), I had to have his second collection Guilt – Schuld and his novel Der Fall Collini right away. The novel isn’t out in English yet but it is due end of 2012.

Any which way you want to look at von Schirach’s books, “literary”, “true story”, whatever, they make for pretty addictive reading. I finished this in a sitting or two.

The angle in this collection is a bit different but some of the striking features of the first are present here as well. Most of the crimes are astonishing, many go wrong, often the perpetrator ends up being the victim and not everybody gets punished.

The focus is less the tipping point than the question of guilt. Interestingly not only the criminal’s guilt but to a certain degree even the lawyer’s guilt. There are a few cases, some date back to von Schirach’s early days as a criminal defense lawyer, where at the end I had the feeling that he felt guilty. Guilty because someone walked who shouldn’t have.

Like in the first collection, we get a close look at the German criminal system. I find it interesting how important it is for the lawyer to follow the law 100% even if the punishment doesn’t sound just. I always find it fascinating how a definition can alter the sentence completely. There is one case in which it is crucial to establish whether if someone kills a sleeping man it can ever be anything else than murder. Can it be manslaughter or even self-defence when the person is asleep? Or let’s say someone tries to kill someone, hurts the person badly but then stops before he is dead. That changes everything as well. These details were the best parts in this collection.

There are cases in which you even wonder whether there is not some superior justice at work, for example when a perpetrator gets run over by a car before being even able to commit the gruesome murder he had planned in many details and written down in his diary.

The tone is close to the first book, laconic, brief, to the point. There is no judging of people, no pointing the finger, just a very factual account of what happened.

All in all I liked this collection but not as much as the first. Whether there is a difference – I felt the cases in the first collection were more astonishing as a whole – or whether they are too alike, I’m not sure but I found it a bit less original and not as touching but still well worth reading. I’m really looking forward to read the novel and as I know it will be published soon in English, I will review it in a couple of weeks. If you don’t have any of the two collections yet it may be worth waiting as they will be released together in September Crime and Guilt.

If you are interested in hearing Ferdinand von Schirach talking about crime, punishment, guilt and his very special laconic writing style you might enjoy watching this interview (English and German with translation).

33 thoughts on “Ferdinand von Schirach: Guilt – Schuld (2010)

    • I have no clue about other criminal systems to be honest but it is certinaly very different from the US system we see in movies.
      I’m really interested in reading the novel now. Although he had to go for a WWII topic. Not surprising with his family history.

  1. I am a big fan of the Rumpole stories by John Mortimer – each one based on a lawyers case but they are humourous, not at all like these stories! But I am sure I would enjoy Ferdinand von Schirach very much. You make him sound wonderfully intriguing. I do think that a second book doing very much the same thing as the first is bound to disappoint, as that sense of freshness and discovery will be missing the second time around. I will certainly look out for the English edition.

    • I don’t know the Rumpole stories, but thanks for mentioning them.
      von Schirach isn’t humurous at all, that’s for sure but well worth reading. I guess you are right, it’s the freshness that’s lacking. I guess that is a reason why he chose a novel as his next book. A third one of the same stories will not work, I’m afraid.

  2. can’t comment on this yet to get to crime which I brought ready for german Lit month ,I like the fact he is involved in the law so the stories will have a real feel about them ,all the best stu

  3. I noted the first book down when you wrote about it and will do the same for this and the novel. I usually love crime novels, but lately I’ve not been so much in the mood for them–I’m sure it will change soon–sometimes you just need a break from a certain type of book. You can learn a lot from a culture by reading about their crimes and criminal justice systems–glad he has been translated into English.

    • I think you would like this, once you’re in the mood again.
      I watched the interview and found it quite interesting what he had to say about guilt, Nazi crimes and how people feel in Germany today abot the crimes committed by their grandparents and parents. I think that’s where he went with the novel.
      I’m in the mood to read crime novels but seem not to get the time to pick them up.

  4. Nice review, Caroline! Glad to know that you liked von Schirach’s second volume of stories too. I can’t wait to read it now. Thanks for posting the link to von Schirach’s interview. I found him quite wise. I liked very much his comparison of writing to composing. I also found his reply to the question on whether he has defended a real murderer and got him / her out of jail, quite smart 🙂 It was also interesting to know that there is no statute of limitations in Germany. Hope you are enjoying reading von Schirach’s novel. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on it.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I hope you will like it as well.
      I thought the interview was very interesting, especially also the parts about Germany, guilt and responsibility. He does sound wise and seems very likable. It’s lucky it was translated as at the time it was made, the book wasn’t even out in English yet.

  5. An interesting point in your commentary is the idea of a lawyer sharing in guilt if they get someone they know is guilty off. I actually spoke to a lawyer a few years ago who told me that he felt badly over this very same thing. He obtained a not guilty verdict for a client who he knew was guilty. His misgivings were balanced by the fact that he believed that everyone was entitled to fair representation and that the attorney did nothing unethical. In theory I agree with him but these dilemmas never yield simple answers. The crime in question only involved property. I wonder how much worse he would have felt if it involved direct harm to a person. It sounds as if this book takes on such tough questions.

    • That’s excatly why I find this such an interesting collection as it goes beyond the pure description of the crime and shows how legally someone can be not guilty or, his crime cannot be proven but morally they are. The case in the book which causes the lawyer to doubt himself was gang-rape. And there was nothing he could do legally as he couldn’t prove that anyone was guilty. He felt very bad indeed.
      Cases like this have led to vigilantism.

  6. The first collection is one of my highlights of the year so far, so while I’m super keen to get to this volume I’m also thinking of saving it. The more I think about the Crime volume, the more I appreciate that he is a tremendously skilled writer. Hope the novel lives up to (growing) expectations….

    • The first one is decidedly a highlight and it’s worth waiting a bit with the second. I think I’ve read this too soon after the first. I’m not disappointed at all it was just not the big discovery the first one was. I’m sure the novel is different and I hope it’s good. I’ll let you know very soon I’m sure.

  7. I know that I would like this and I’ve had it on the list since your review of the author’s other book. This sounds very thoughjt provoking.

    Have you seen the British television series Criminal Justice I and II. The first one concerns a young man who may or may not have killed a young woman. The second one concerns a case of murder or is it justifiable homicide. I recommend them both.

    • I’m sure you would like them. I really hope the novel will be good as well.
      I don’t think I’ve sen Criminal Justice. Thanks for the recommendation.

  8. I think we tend to get “law” and “justice” mixed up sometimes. Lawyers are there in court to argue points of law, which doesn’t always lead to justice for the victim of a crime. I think it would be a hard to defend someone you felt was guilty, but that’s a defence lawyer’s job. The novel sounds interesting. I’ll have to look out for it when it’s published in English.

    • You are certainly right. He is someone who follows the law strictly but he is glad when someone he feesl didn’t deserve it walks.
      The novel should be interesting as he had to deal with the story of his family at some point even though he doesn’t write about his family.
      It must be very eerie to have had a Nazi criminal as your grandfather.

  9. Will it be published in hardcover or paperback??

    I will look it up in my frequent bookstores in October and hoping it made it here 🙂

    thank you for the video, I will see it now.

    • The novel you mean? It looks as if all of the books went straight to paperback in English. I think you would like the first short story collection. That’s out in paperback.
      I hope you like the video. I found it very interesting. Also about if Germans should still feel guilty about WWII.

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  12. I couldn’t wait on this one and got it down from the shelf a couple of weeks ago. It was just what I wanted: more of the same as the superb first volume. Taken together these would be a clear choice for my “best of” 2012.

    Look forward to The Collini Case – can it live up to expectation?!

    • I noticed after I posted my Best of List that I had somehow forgotten his books although I’ve read all of them this year. An omission!
      The Collini Case is different. I would say it is as good as the two collections but since it’s only one case, it doesn’t have the same effect. On the other hand WWII law is very interesting and the case he describes contains a few great surprises. The writing is still the same.

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