Lurid Tales of 'Crime' Captivate But Fall Flat

'Crime' by Ferdinand von Schirach (Knopf)

A man lies on his back, watching the sky and daydreaming about escape from the dreary stasis of his past, present, and future. This simple—and simplistic—image is a recurring one in “Crime: Stories,” a new anthology by German defense attorney Ferdinand von Schirach translated by Carol Brown Janeway. It is the key to understanding the author’s sensitive portrayals of the malefactors that populate his pages. Each of the stories in this slender volume approaches a different facet of human vice; in economical, if occasionally clunky, prose, von Schirach introduces readers to murderers, prostitutes, bank robbers, and a destroyer of fine art. To combine this darkly fascinating subject matter with the author’s straightforward narration initially seems a kind of alchemy; von Schirach promises to extract insights about “human beings—their failings, their guilt, and their capacity to behave magnificently” from the elements of hardboiled detective novels and television serials.

Perhaps it is von Schirach’s background in law that prevents “Crime” from realizing its high literary ambitions. Although he often speculates on his characters’ feelings and motives, he is ultimately reluctant to pass judgment by endowing his stories with broader significance, and it is impossible to derive much substance from his harrowing anecdotes beyond platitudes about the inscrutability of human nature. There are many opportunities for the collection to transcend its roots in popular fiction and true crime reporting, but von Schirach does not follow through on any of them.

Each story is narrated in the first person by a defense attorney, presumably von Schirach himself, and this fictional double has the potential to add a level of formal sophistication to von Schirach’s simple prose. But von Schirach wastes the opportunity by playing it straight, effacing the role of the narrator as much as possible and never exploring this conceit’s potential to offer insights on guilt, innocence, fate, and the meaning of truth—all concepts the author proclaims he will address in the preface of “Crime.”

Nevertheless, von Schirach’s explorations of criminal psychology are riveting. The prose in these passages is direct and deliberate, and his imaginative, empathetic recreations of his clients’ thoughts enrich their narratives, adding emotional weight to plots that would otherwise lack meaning and sophistication. The opening pages of “The Thorn” trace the development of a museum security guard’s psychosis with such restraint that his bizarre actions seem like a plainly logical result of his circumstances.

Of course, von Schirach often turns to this explanation for his clients’ behavior—that they are victims of circumstance—when his clever legal maneuvering is not enough to acquit them. Each perpetrator in “Crime” is introduced with an elaborate backstory that explains his or her criminal inclinations. These accounts occasionally feel perfunctory; when a young Eastern European woman becomes a prostitute in Berlin, von Schirach reveals that she fled her village after being raped by soldiers fighting an unspecified war. The vagueness and brevity of her history—we never even learn the name of her home country—is not only careless but disappointing. Anyone could have inferred such an environment for an Eastern European prostitute working in Germany; neither the backstory nor the straightforward, prosaic style in which von Schirach spells it out add anything to that story or the collection as a whole.

Despite the occasional lapse into negligence, though, von Schirach’s ‘members of the underworld’ are engaging, relatable, and often endearing—even if they never transcend their origins as stock characters masked by quirky flourishes, like a head injury that leaves a Greek cocaine dealer convinced he is from Finland. Unfortunately, von Schirach is rarely able to endow his other characters—generally victims and employees of the judicial system—with such charisma. He spends half a page listing the features of a homicide detective’s office, noting that “the decor is practical and light gray, the rooms are too cramped, the chairs are too ergonomic, and on the windowsills are plastic-looking plants with self-irrigating pebble trays.” The description does little to develop the characterization of the man to whom the office belongs, and it seems that von Schirach subscribes to the fallacy that the accumulation of small details, no matter what they are, is a shortcut to realism.

One of the primary virtues of the television crime procedurals that seem to have inspired von Schirach is their self-containment. Comprehending the plot arc of an individual episode of “Law & Order” does not require knowledge of other episodes, or, for that matter, of the show at all. Similarly, the stories in “Crime” do not inform each other in any meaningful way; despite the recurrence of von Schirach’s character and certain images and situations, this collection is nothing more than the sum of its parts. This need not be a problem—a collection of stories that are compelling and well-crafted enough to stand on their own is as pleasurable as any story cycle. Yet many of von Schirach’s breathless, plot-driven pieces are too slight to be read alone. He occasionally adds a symbolic-seeming image, like an apple, to his stories, or flirts with their philosophical implications. He pauses at one point to ponder about a bank robber, “Had he not done what all of us are capable of? Would we have behaved differently if we had found ourselves in his place?” And yet he never explores these symbols and musings far enough to say anything original. One is left hoping that they will be expanded upon elsewhere—only to be disappointed.

Abbas, a Palestinian refugee, is one of the many desperate dreamers in “Crime.” He is introduced like many of the others, “lay[ing] down on the clay of his unpaved street and [trying] to count the hopeless tangle of power lines and phone lines that were slung between the houses and carved up the sky.” Indeed, his life itself is fragmented, ‘carved up’ by poverty and bad luck beyond any hope of meaning or substantial achievement. It is a shame that such a clear parallel can be drawn with von Schirach’s anthology.

—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at alind@fas.harvard.edu.

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