The Collini Case is a fascinating book and its author, Ferdinand von Schirach is an equally fascinating person. He is a qualified lawyer who is one of Germany’s most prominent defence counsel. As a second string to his bow he started writing and has been at least as successful doing this. His novel concerns a young, newly-qualified defence lawyer whose first brief is the legal aid defence of a man who not only admits murder but sat waiting for the police to come for him. An open-and-shut case? Well, not if you want to write an interesting crime novel.
Von Schirach shows how the German legal system works in cases like these, with a judge, two legal and two lay advisers rather than a jury. His description of the procedure is strictly correct and the laws under which the trial operates are factual, rather than fictional. Given too that he writes about how a Nazi past has impacted on the present case, it is not without significance that the author, born in 1964, is the grandson of the man who lead the Hitler Youth. He knows his subject better than most. It is a fact too that in 2012, within months of the novel’s publication and phenomenal sales, the German Federal Minister of Justice established a committee of inquiry into the impact of on his department of the country’s Nazi past. The novel was cited as one of the reasons for this inquiry. The book makes the terrible but true revelation that reprisal killings were carried out by Allied forces as well as the Wehrmacht.
This blogger has a strict policy of no ‘spoilers’ so I cannot say too much about the plot. However, it does need to be said that there is a credulity-stretching reliance on coincidence and on one moment of realisation and revelation that only the quality of the writing (and, importantly, on the quality of Anthea Bell’s translation) manages to save. It is also, for the reasons mentioned above, a significant work. Perhaps, not as significant or as likely to be read in schools as, say, To Kill a Mocking Bird, but one that every student of law ought to read.