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der fall collini

6 august 2023

It's the year 2001. A young attorney gets his first case as a public defender: the brutal, seemingly motiveless killing of a prominent industrialist. Come to find that the industrialist was a longtime family friend and mentor to the young attorney. Come further to find that the attorney is sleeping with the victim's granddaughter.

I dunno, in these circs I might refuse the case, and Caspar Leinen thinks about doing that. But his client doesn't seem to care. And a bakery-shop manager tells him to just defend the guy and stop worrying. "Sie sind Rechtsanwalt, Sie müssen tun, was Rechtsanwälte tun" (78). You're a lawyer; you have to do what lawyers do.

The killing seems motiveless. Fabrizio Collini, retired factory worker in his sixties, has shot and mutilated the dead body of Hans Meyer, retired industrialist in his eighties. The motive, or lack thereof, is important to Collini's defense; it's the difference between manslaughter and premeditated murder. But Collini isn't talking.

Leinen, being a sharp lawyer, eventually works out the connection between killer and victim. Not to spoil the story too much, but the motive involves deeply buried secrets from the second world war. Crime novels often involve such secrets. Here, the secrets entail an assessment of some West German legal developments of the 1960s (all historically accurate), and even more assessment of what's right versus what's legal.

As a glimpse at Google will inform you – so no spoiler here either – Der Fall Collini must have something to do with author Ferdinand von Schirach's own family history. His grandfather was the egregious Baldur von Schirach, who served 20 years after his Nuremberg trial for crimes against humanity. Freed at the close of his sentence, Baldur may well have played the grandfatherly role in the author's young life that Hans Meyer plays in Caspar Leinen's. If not, Ferdinand has imagined such a relationship well.

I think that Ferdinand von Schirach is better at short fiction than at novels, and indeed he has mostly stuck to writing collections of shorter pieces. Der Fall Collini is in some ways a padded-out novella, its story mainly an excuse to get to the legal conundrums of the concluding courtroom scenes. But it's a good story and worth its 187 pages.

Schirach, Ferdinand von. Der Fall Collini. 2011. München: btb [Penguin Random House], 2017.