‘Guilt’ Is an Apt Title for This Collection

Imagine a voice that’s equal parts Camus and Lennie Briscoe: terse yet occasionally elegant, sardonic, acquainted with irrational human violence and its pitiful aftermath.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ferdinand von Schirach, a German writer who could swap stories with both the author of The Stranger and The Fall and the fictional detective of Law & Order.

A longtime criminal defense attorney in Berlin, von Schirach’s story collection Crime (2011) was a German bestseller and, in translation, attracted positive notice in the United States. Guilt, his second collection, follows the first book’s template. Its 15 stories appear to be drawn from von Schirach’s experiences in and out of court, and he occasionally inserts himself as observer or character. Given no evidence to the contrary, we have to assume the stories are at least lightly fictionalized.

Guilt is an apt title for this collection; these stories are as concerned with the consciences (or lack thereof) of the perpetrators and their motivations as they are with courtroom justice. In fact, the story here called “Justice”, about a congenitally deformed man wrongly serving time because of an assumption about transposed letters in his name, holds a mirror up to a travesty that’s almost Kafkaesque.

The brutal “Funfair” presents readers with a horrible crime and further injustice: a brass band of “respectable men with respectable jobs” sexually assault a teenage waitress and throw her under the stage. “They were playing a polka as the policemen pulled the girl out of the muck.” She survives, but in saving her life, the doctors destroy physical evidence, including the bodily fluids deposited on her. She is so battered she “couldn’t name her attackers; she couldn’t tell one from another; under the makeup and wigs they all looked alike.” The men are released; the young defense attorneys working on their behalf “knew that things would never be simple again.”

In another tale of groupthink turned violent, a group of boys at a boarding school make their own secret society and humiliate a weaker one, nearly to his death. “Much later, after everything had happened, more than four hundred books were found in their cupboards and night stands, books on Inquisition trials, satanic rituals, secret societies, and flagellants, and their computers were full of images of the torturing of witches and sadistic pornography.”

“Children” offers a different horror story: Hollbrecht, a sales rep, loses everything when accused by a schoolgirl in his wife’s class of sexually abusing her. Adult porn was found on his computer; the judge believed the girl; Hollbrecht served a full three-years-plus term to the last day, refusing to acknowledge any crime to the prison psychologist. He was innocent. What happens when he and his defense attorney, separately, encounter his accuser is chilling.

In “The Other Man”, Paulsberg and his “slim, elegant” wife develop a discreet routine of having strange men use her sexually while he watches. When the anonymity of these trysts is broken, Paulsberg bashes the other man in the head with an ashtray. The disposition of the case, and Paulsberg’s ultimate sentence, depended on what could be determined about his motive. Paulsberg wished to protect his wife, a lawyer: If the partners in her firm found out about their lifestyle, she would lose her job. He left what to say up to her:

“In almost every jury trial there is this one moment when everything suddenly becomes clear. I thought she was going to talk about the unknown men. But she told a different story.”

Perhaps because of its Russian element, “The Key” reminds me of Ken Kalfus’ tale of toxically stupid criminal tricks, “Pu-239”. Frank and dimwitted, ‘roid-raging Atris plan to sell a batch of designer drugs for big money. Frank is picked up prematurely and nearly beaten to death. A mastiff swallows the key to a locker where the pills and money are kept. It gets messier. A Maserati gets filthy. Another Maserati gets stolen. A determined woman has a gun pointed at Atris. Atris draws a moral from this series of misadventures, but maybe not the right one.

RATING 6 / 10