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The Collini Case Hardcover – 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
Von Schirach, a prominent German advocate for the accused and author of two story collections (Guilt; Crime), disappoints with this present-day legal thriller, a whydunit. Fabrizio Collini, a toolmaker in his late 70s, pretends to be a reporter for an Italian newspaper when he calls on 85-year-old Jean-Baptiste Meyer, a German businessman, in his room at Berlin's Hotel Adlon. Collini later confesses to shooting Meyer four times in the head, and then stamping repeatedly on Meyer's face. Caspar Leinen, who has just begun work as a defense lawyer, accepts the case before realizing that Meyer's real name is Hans Meyer, and that he's an old friend; but Collini wants Leinen to stay on the case, despite this personal connection. Given the advanced ages of the two principals, readers will have no trouble guessing that the killer's motive has something to do with WWII. Even the courtroom scenes lack genuine drama. (Aug.) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
This spare novel follows the publication of the English translation of von Schirach’s debut short-story collection, Crime and Guilt (2011). The author’s unique perspective and experiences as a defense attorney gave credibility to that collection, as it does to this novel. An Italian living in contemporary Berlin enters a hotel suite and brutally murders its occupant. Then he waits in the lobby to be arrested. All that is known of the killer is that he is a retired machinist at Mercedes-Benz. The victim is one of the richest men in Germany. The focus is on court-appointed defense attorney Caspar Leinen, who has been qualified for only 42 days. This is a pretty typical David-and-Goliath legal case, with Leinen pitted against one of Germany’s top prosecutors. But the way that Leinen digs for facts—and his eventual discoveries, which go back through his personal past and extend to the Holocaust—animate what is a tight-lipped but involving mystery. --Connie Fletcher --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Von Schirach, who is himself a noted jurist, writes in a beautifully spare style, crisply translated by the inimitable Anthea Bell. It is a manner not unlike that of Peter Stamm, but without his sometimes cold disengagement. Indeed, when Caspar meets up again with Meyer's granddaughter Johanna, von Schirach's minimalist style proves equally adept at describing passion as outlining legal procedure. Not that there is much of that; the case seems to be going nowhere until there is an unexpected break in the trial which Caspar uses to do some research in the state archives….
It will surprise nobody who considers the ages of the characters that this case will turn out to have roots in WW2. Like his fellow jurist Bernhard Schlink, von Schirach is deeply concerned with the lingering legacy of the Third Reich in the contemporary judicial system. He may have an even greater stake in addressing past wrongs since his grandfather, Baldur von Schirach, was head of the Hitlerjugend and Gauleiter of Vienna. And what his young attorney brings to light here is not only a possible war crime, but also a loophole slyly inserted into postwar German law that effectively allows former perpetrators to go unpunished. Von Schirach gives details of this law in an appendix and indeed suggests that his novel may have inspired the formation of a state commission to review this aspect of the legal system. That is what I mean by calling the book important.
Unfortunately, from the moment the trial resumes, the book loses some of its strength as a novel. Caspar Leinen leads with an emotion-laden description of Collini's childhood that he could not possibly have got from the archives, and is unlikely to have learned from his taciturn client. But when the questions of legal responsibility come up and we hear of this execrable loophole, von Schirach returns to his dry style; our minds may be scandalized, but we do not react viscerally. All the same, this compact novel (scarcely more than a novella, really) is engaging at the beginning and thought-provoking at the end. For many readers, that may well be enough.
Only THEN comes the big surprise and it is not just a novelistic corker, but a twist which caused Germany to change its laws. It's hard to say more without undermining the secrets of this terrific novel. It has all the qualities of Von Schirach's other works: a cool, artless prose full of insights into human nature; a dedicated, somewhat eccentric protagonist, a lawyer dedicated to accomplishing justice; and legal puzzles which non-lawyer and experienced lawyer alike will find intriguing and rewarding.
One of the things which I find so valuable in Von Schirach's fiction is his illumination of the importance of the law to mirror human nature while still establishing predictable rules to allow the average person to conduct his or her life without running afoul of the law. Von Schirach should be taught in law school.
I always wonder what makes Von Schirach so popular, especially in Germany. I would think that part of the answer is his family name but this in itself would certainly not be sufficient to make the best sellers lists. The author has narrative talent which he uses to describe very often the dark sides of human nature and behavior but ,in my opinion, in a compasionate, even sort of impartial " legal" manner so the reader may be the judge himself.
All in all not a masterpiece but very solid literature.
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