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.

26 thoughts on “Ferdinand von Schirach: The Collini Case – Der Fall Collini (2011)

  1. Thanks Caroline: why is so often the better question than who. I already have the other two books by this author on my list so this one will be added too.

    For some reason this makes me think of the recent film The Debt. Have you seen it?

    • I think so too.
      I’m quite curious to find out what you will think of von Schirach. I can see why some people liked the novel less. I don’t think it’s a question of quality but reading the short story collection one gets used to being astonished on every second page, this is different but I thought very well written too.

  2. 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.

    That’s very perceptive. I never thought about it in this manner. Now I really want to read the book.

  3. Caroline – You make this sound like a great crime novel. I love the idea of the mystery being why and not who. Explorations of the human mind m and character can be the most interesting.

    I also wonder how many people that we know in real life , evan fairly well,that have all kinds of hidden things that would surprise and shock us. I would guess many more then most people imagine. Another reason that stories like this are so fascinating.

    • I can really recommend the book alos for those who do not usually read crime as explores other aspects.
      I think there are many families in which there are secrets sweltering under the surface. Not a pleasant idea.

  4. The golden age crime author, Francis Iles was the same in that you often know who the murderer is, but in his case you watch to see if s/he’ll get away with it. I remember von Schirach from your reviews of the short story collections and if I ever see a book by him in a UK bookstore, I’d certainly pick it up.On another note it always surprises me how many writers were lawyers. There’s loads of them!

    • In his short story collections there are quite a few who get away with it as well.
      I suppose lawyers, just like doctors hear an endless amount of stories which must be quite inspiring. It would be interesting to see how their professions shapes their respective writing.

  5. It’s a ver good writer who can open a story b giving away the ending (so to speak–or the solution in terms of a crime novel) and pull off a really good story. Ruth Rendell did the same in Judgement in Stone. I think Schirach must be very good if you’ve read three (does he have more books?) all close together like you have. He’s still on my list, but I guess now I’ll be adding yet another title to it.

    • It’s a powerful topic, it worked well and it does seem as if tis did happen in real life quite often, that a perosn kills someone without telling why.
      He has a way of writing that is extremely accessible and quite addicte. Plus the books are all under 200. I’m sure you would like this one.

  6. I remember you other reviews. He must be very good, it’s not often that you read several books by the same writer in such a short time.
    Are you in a Von Schirach fest ?

    I find the question of the “why” interesting too. I love whodunnits for the fun, the moment you spend with a page-turner. But they usually don’t make you think.

    Unfortunately, he’s not an easy writer to find in French. What a pity, I’d love to try him. (no WWII stories, is that why?) I find it stranger that German lit isn’t more translated into French. Germany is our neighbour.

    • Yes, he is good but the books were short and in German, in only took a moment to read them. 🙂
      I always thought a lot of German literature is translated into French. I’m sure he will be sooner or later.

  7. sounds interesting. I still havent read anything by him. Although you’ve mentioned about how Germany is dealing with the past but what interest me the most is the case, why did that old man murder someone.

  8. Wonderful review, Caroline! I want to read this book now! Collini reminds me of the main character in the story ‘Self Defence’, which is there in von Schirach’s book ‘Crime’, in which also the main character refuses to speak. I can’t wait to read ‘The Collini Case’ 🙂

  9. Pingback: Crime & Guilt – Ferdinand von Schirach (trans. Carol Brown Janeway) | A Fiction Habit

  10. A deceptively quick read. Yes, shocking in many ways. I thought the stuff about legal definitions and tolerances of reprisals particularly amazing. Could that be the case? Evidently it was. The book turns into a bit of a lecture right at the end, but that’s forgiveable. I’m moved to look up more detail about the issues he raises.

    Yet again I immensely enjoyed his spare, dry style. So distinctive, and so welcome to read something that effortlessly disregards flourishes and showy writing. I loved the way he sketched the life and character of the older lawyer. He’s great at those little glimpses into things.

    • I ike this very spare style as well. I’m tired of the flourishes. Some authors do it well, many just write so flowery beacuse they were told to.
      The case is astonishim, to say the least. The law related to those crimes is often not comprehensible.
      I’m tempted to read his latest novel for GLM.

  11. Pingback: Ferdinand von Schirach: Tabu (2013) – The Girl Who Wasn’t There (2015) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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