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22 july 2018

Schuld by Ferdinand von Schirach turned out to be the perfect book for an occasion, but also an intriguing introduction to a writer who speaks with curious authority.

The occasion: I found myself in Germany, having run out of things to read, and wanting a book for the last week of my stay. I didn't want something protracted that would take the rest of the summer to read. A couple of magazines would probably have been a fine option, but instead I ran across Schuld, a 200-page volume of short crime stories.

Von Schirach speaks as the first person narrator of these stories, with the authority of the veteran criminal lawyer that he is, but as I said, the authority is curious. The "stories" (von Schirach's own term) in Schuld are definitely fictional. Or at least they seem fictional. Truth being proverbially stranger, for all I know the 15 narratives here could be transcriptions from reality. But they have the finish and the shape of art, and they thoughtfully examine the purpose and impact of laws.

"Schuld" means "Guilt" (the title used for the English translation), but also "fault" or "responsibility" (in the negative sense of "blame"), and in addition is a common German word for "debt," both monetary debt and in the connotation of "debt to society." It's a basic enough German word to be at the root of the one phrase all travelers need: Entschuldigung, it's my fault I got in your way, stepped on your toes, knocked over your latte.

"Schuld" is a complex concept. Von Schirach devotes much of his 200 pages to exploring it. The exploration works better for being couched in stories than it would as straight philosophy. Suppose – to abstract from just one story here, and not spoil it too much – somebody were planning a hideous crime, and suppose someone else, out of gross negligence, killed the would-be criminal just as they were on the verge of committing that crime. Who's guilty? That's the kind of question that von Schirach loves to address.

But he addresses it in a "just the facts, Ma'am" way. In these 15 stories, one sequence of events after another challenges easy assignments of responsibility. In most of them, attorney Ferdinand von Schirach shows up to handle some element of a criminal defense. But the author/narrator/character is no Perry Mason. He's part of the system and as such bears his own responsibility. He gets bad people off and is powerless to protect good ones; he watches the system do right things for wrong reasons, and both right and wrong things out of sheer inertia.

Three of the stories in Schuld stand out for me. In "Schnee" ("snow"), an elderly man rents out his dwelling to drug dealers, and takes a significant fall for them when the premises are raided. He has his own reasons for shielding the dealers, reasons that have little to do with their merit or good will. Von Schirach plays a small part in the old man's defense, seizing on a technicality to reduce the charges, but he learns of a much larger, more poignant web of motives and relationships in the course of the case.

"Der Koffer" is the creepiest of the bunch, which is saying something. During a routine traffic check in Berlin, a cop pulls over a Polish rental car that's a little too clean and empty for her taste. Come to find that there are horrific photographs of corpses in the trunk ("der Koffer") of the vehicle. As the driver's hastily-summoned attorney (von Schirach) notes, however,

Ich habe immer noch nicht verstanden, was der Vorwurf ist. … Selbst wenn es echte Leichen gewesen sein sollten, ist es nicht verboten, Bilder von ihnen zu haben. Es gibt schlicht keinen Straftatbestand. (93)

[I still don't understand what the charge is. … Even if they're real bodies, having pictures of them isn't against the law. There's simply no offense here.]
At that point, the driver could walk out the door: but he doesn't, and his problems really begin.

The best story in the volume, though, is the least typical. "Der Schlüssel," "the key," is a literal object, the key to a luggage locker. Don't let the key out of your sight, says one drug dealer to another as he leaves town. All it takes is a brief turn of the back, and things go seriously sideways. "Der Schlüssel" is the kind of story that starts unassumingly and then piles disaster onto disaster. Despite the gruesomeness that it shares with the other tales in Schuld, it's a comic story that recalls the best of Carl Hiaasen and other practitioners of noir absurdism.

Schirach, Ferdinand von. Schuld. 2010. München: btb, 2017.