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GUILT by Ferdinand von Schirach



by Ferdinand von Schirach & translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-59949-0
Publisher: Knopf

The second volume of unusual case histories by a German defense attorney with a literary flair.

As a follow-up to Crime (2011), this very similar collection can’t offer the revelatory impact of its predecessor, nor the consistency (the reader suspects that the best stories were used in the earlier book). Yet its combination of legal experience and literary command will continue to find favor with those who appreciated the debut. These are compressed, matter-of-fact accounts which the author maintains are based on criminal cases in which he was involved, but often read like existential parables that probe the limits of the law in exploring the mysteries of the human heart and psyche. The opening “Funfair” details an inexplicable gang rape by “perfectly normal men” of a young victim who had consciously done nothing to turn these men into animals. “Later nobody could explain anything,” says the author, who was then a young lawyer, and for whom the case would provide a rite of passage, an initiation, when it became obvious that the law could do nothing, that “legal proceedings would end here and that guilt was another matter entirely” and that “we knew we'd lost our innocence and that this was irrelevant.” Though the narratives are often as terse as the best hard-boiled crime fiction, the most compelling tales have a philosophical dimension reminiscent of Kafka or Camus. In “The Other Man,” a narrative of random sex and its complications, the author writes of a woman who had never anticipated the consequences of desire. Other stories are slighter, with O. Henry twists, but they are also relatively short.

These stories are specifically about crime and the law, but they more generally encompass the human condition.