Book Review: The Collini Case by Ferdinand Von Schirach

Fabrizio Collini meets well known German industrialist Hans Meyer at a Berlin Hotel and brutally murders him. He then waits in the lobby for the police to arrive.

Struggling novice defence lawyer, Casper Leinen, is on the legal-aid rota and receives a call from the magistrate’s office to ask if he will represent Collini. Sensing the possibility of making a name for himself, Leinen is keen to take on the case. Finding his client to be uncommunicative and also discovering that the victim and the bereaved are known to him, Leinen questions his commitment.

It appears to be an open and shut case. Can he, should he, defend Collini? Of course, he does, and his efforts to do his utmost to defend his client sees him delve into his personal history and friendships as well as the troubled past of Germany.

This is the first book I have read by Ferdinand von Schirach, a respected defence lawyer in Germany who has written short stories and novels that have become bestsellers.

This is a slim book and von Shirach’s style is spare but efficient. The characters are introduced and the plot moves along at a pace. At first, the brisk, unfussy style comes across well but later, narrative jumps and some questionable scenes in which the characters choose to release information when it would suit the writer best, rather than when it would be natural for them to release it, serve to irritate.

As an example, during a crucial cross-examination scene an expert witness answers the prosecutor’s questions with mostly ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, which is great for the prosecution. She does not qualify her answers in any way, as would be natural to an expert who wanted to convey full information and the nuances of what they were saying. The full picture only comes out when Casper Leinen cross-examines her and, conveniently, she gives a fuller statement that changes the weight of her evidence considerably.

There are also scenes which seem to add nothing to the story other than perhaps ticking off a list of items that the writer has been told are necessary for a crime-thriller. Autopsy (tick). Sex scene (tick). Montage of the protagonist making a name for himself and in a dashed off paragraph listing all of the cases he has successfully defended before the main murder case comes to court (tick). Defence lawyer receiving homely but sage advice from a shop owner (tick). However, without these, the book would be more a pamphlet given von Schirach’s unfussy style. The reader may also roll their eyes when the prosecution lawyer stands up and blusters ‘I object.’ Can this ever not happen in a fictional court case?

The story is readable however, and you will want to get to the end to find out what happens. It also raises some interesting and though-provoking questions about how we adjust to new knowledge that affects long-held beliefs, experiences and memories.

The Collini Case was translated from the German by Anthea Bell and published by Penguin Books – 2015

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