Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini (2011)

After having liked both short story collections Crime (here) and Guilt (here) by Ferdinand von Schirach it was only a matter of time until I’d get to his first novel The Collini CaseDer Fall Collini. It has been published in Germany end of last year and is due out in English in a few weeks.

Ferdinand von Schirach is one of Germany’s most prominent defence lawyer’s. And he is the grandson of Baldur von Schirach who was convicted of being a war criminal. Given this family history it’s not surprising his new book has a WWII theme. But it wouldn’t be a Ferdinand von Schirach book if it was only about a war crime.

It’s not easy to write a decent review about The Collini Case without giving away too much. Collini is a 6o-year-old Italian who has been living in Germany for a long time. One day – and this is not a spoiler as it happens on the first pages – he enters a hotel room pretending to be a journalist and brutally kills the 80-year-old business tycoon Hans Meyer. He then waits patiently until he is arrested.

Leinen is a young lawyer. The Collini case is his very first case. While there is no doubt that Collini has murdered Meyer, finding out why he did so is important as it can determine the sentence. Unfortunately Collini doesn’t want to speak. This makes it hard for the young lawyer and there are other adversities which make it even harder.

Von Schirach said in an interview that he doesn’t think of himself as a crime writer as the “who did it” doesn’t interest him at all. He wants to know why. And so it’s not surprising that the novel entirely focuses on the question why a spotless man like Collini committed a gruesome murder.

What fascinated me and most readers of von Schirachs’s stories was the fact that they were all based on true stories. Very naturally I was wondering the same here. Is it true? While it is obvious that the lawyer isn’t von Schirah in this case, the trial and the many amazing twists and turns are all based on a real case.

The case as such and how it is presented, the court room part, the look into the way Germany has dealt and still deals with its past are really interesting and I liked reading about it. Some of it left me speechless and was quite shocking. Some of it was very sad. Interestingly though that wasn’t the main appeal of this novel for me. I’ve read quite a few reviews and was surprised how much people wrote about the case and the trial only. What makes this an outstanding book in my eyes is another dimension. Without revealing too much I can say that one of the most important points of the book is the loss of memories. Imagine you find out that a person you like is not what you thought but that on the contrary has been hiding a dark and unpleasant secret. Wouldn’t that make you feel as if you’ve lost all your memories tied to that person? That’s I think one of the reasons why family secrets are so damaging. They can alter the perception of your past to such an extent that you will feel robbed of it.

Once more von Schirach has shown that he not only knows how to tell a story in crystal clear and very taut prose but that he can write interesting, thoughtful and thought-provoking books.