The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

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The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

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Category: Crime
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An immigrant who has been living a blameless life in Germany for over 35 years, suddenly shoots a man and offers no defence. His court-appointed lawyer finds an unexpected personal connection to the case. Court-room drama and/or intriguing investigation should follow. Unfortunately neither are played out to their full potential in this readable, but not totally engaging offering.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 163 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Michael Joseph
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780718159191

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Later they would all remember it…the man was gigantic, and they all mentioned the smell of sweat.

The man concerned is Fabrizio Collini, a quiet, respectable man, for thirty-four years a diligent worker at Mercedes Benz, an unexceptional person. Then, one day, he walked into a luxury Berlin hotel, up to the Brandenburg Suite and pulled a trigger. At least four times.

Then he walked back down to the lobby and told the staff to call the cops.

And then he waited.

Caspar Leinen gets the case because he is the German equivalent of the duty solicitor. He's been qualified for 42 days. In the real world you might question what kind of defence you expect from lone representation by an unpractised legal defender. But if you're Collini, you probably wouldn't care anyway. He freely admits that he shot the man. It's going to take something special to get anything other than a straightforward Guilty verdict – and maybe a guilty verdict is what Collini wants. But why would he? More to the point why would he kill the guy in the first place? None of it makes any sense.

Two things Leinen knows, however: firstly he wants to be a defender, a good one; secondly, winning this case would make his name overnight and give him a shot at the, let's call them, interesting cases. Motivation doesn't come any stronger than this.

Then he suddenly discovers a counter-balance. He knew the victim. A classic set up for a legal battle, edged with a personal and professional dilemma in the heart of the main protagonist.

Barely stretching to more than 160 pages in the advance copy, though listed at 208 in the published version, the Collini case is a novella rather than a fully fledged novel. There may be a bigger market for these in mainland Europe than in the UK, so it may be unfair of me to criticise it on those grounds alone, but I do feel that in producing the work at this length the author has undersold his original premise.

The back-story is solid. It has two strands: Collini's tale and Leinen's. Exposition of each could have been stronger and better paced.

Even without fully understanding the German legal system, but getting the idea that it is similar to the French inquisitorial system and therefore very different to the British and US adversarial systems, I still felt that the scope for courtroom drama wasn't fully exploited.

In particular the legal nicety (to use the word in its precise and particularly inappropriate sense) upon which the entire case hinges is one that will be lost on all foreign readers. I also wonder how many German readers are clear upon its implication. If novels are required to have a purpose, then the purpose of this one is either to challenge the loophole in this particular law, or maybe to challenge the fact that it hasn't been exploited to its full compassionate extent.

Therein lies my real problem with the book. I came away uncertain as to which stance it was taking.

In one sense that doesn't matter, because I don't believe that novels are required to have a purpose. In another, it matters immensely, because it left me uncertain as to whether I was intended to admire the lawyer or reject him, and worse yet, left me uncertain as to which I actually did.

On the upside, it is a very readable tale, with a clear-cut mystery at its heart. The mystery is well-worked. The dilemma on the part of the defending lawyer is also well-played. As a story it works, and will keep you with it.

It's just that with a slower unravelling of the historical evidence, a drip-feed of the motivations on both sides, and maybe even with a stronger motivation on the part of the prosecutors who really only get a walk-on part, the idea could have been developed into a full scale novel that might just have engaged the reader's sympathy with the characters, whichever side they eventually came down on. Rather than a vague interest in the outcome, it could have engendered an emotional reaction to the people and through that to the issues.

Other recent additions to crime and punishment in Berlin include The Girl On The Stairs by Louise Welsh but for real courtroom finesse you can't beat Grisham ~ try The Appeal for a taster.

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