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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Collini Case

Ferdinand von Schirach

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To purchase The Collini Case

Title: The Collini Case
Author: Ferdinand von Schirach
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 187 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Collini Case - US
The Collini Case - UK
The Collini Case - Canada
The Collini Case - India
L'affaire Collini - France
Der Fall Collini - Deutschland
Il caso Collini - Italia
El caso Collini - España
  • German title: Der Fall Collini
  • Translated by Anthea Bell

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Our Assessment:

B : some solid elements, but didactic purpose overwhelms story(telling)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 28/9/2012 Christopher Fowler
FAZ . 16/9/2011 Patrick Bahners
The Guardian . 21/9/2012 John O'Connell
Publishers Weekly . 10/6/2013 .
The Scotsman . 15/9/2012 Allan Massie
The Spectator . 31/10/2012 Daisy Dunn
Toronto Star . 9/11/2012 Michel Basilières

  From the Reviews:
  • "The case is constructed as meticulously as the novel, whose author is a prominent German defence lawyer. The result is a miracle of purpose and precision that leaves most bloated thrillers on the starting blocks." - Christopher Fowler, Financial Times

  • "Leinen vervollständigt lediglich die Akten um die Akte Meyer, versetzt sich nicht in Collini hinein. Der Täter wird in dem Verfahren, das Ferdinand von Schirach veranstaltet, nicht zur Person. (...) Apropos. Auch dieses Buch Ferdinand von Schirachs strotzt von falschen Konjunktiven, schiefen Bildern und kitschigen Sentenzen." - Patrick Bahners, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Once you overlook the implausibility of the set-up, this is a small gem -- sly, trenchant and provocative, none of its conclusions foregone." - John O'Connell, The Guardian

  • "Von Schirach (...) disappoints with this present-day legal thriller, a "whydunit." (...) Even the courtroom scenes lack genuine drama." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The novel – little more than a novella really – is written in a dry flat style, which is extremely persuasive. The trial scenes are excellent. Von Schirach confronts the question of the limitations of law, invites us to ask what justice is. (...) The book, well translated by Anthea Bell, is disturbing, precisely because there is no conclusive answer to be given." - Allan Massie, The Scotsman

  • "The pace of the novel quickens towards its conclusion, but the first drama occurs early on. (...) As a character, Leinen would seem more at home in the 1930s. His daily routine is grey and timeless. (...) This certainly isn’t a comfortable story, but it is an important one." - Daisy Dunn, The Spectator

  • "Von Schirach has a style that is elegant, precise and lean. So lean in fact, it’s sometimes surprising to see whole scenes and important turning points in the plot handled so briefly. Another novelist might spend hundreds of pages where von Schirach gives us a simple paragraph. This is what marks this book as a literary one rather than a commercial thriller." - Michel Basilières, Toronto Star

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Collini Case begins in Berlin in 2001, with the brutal murder of eighty-five year old German industrialist Hans Meyer, "one of the richest men in the Federal Republic". He is killed by Fabrizio Collini, a recently retired Italian immigrant who worked in Germany for decades. Collini set up the crime -- he claimed to be a journalist who wanted to interview Meyer -- and he did not flee the scene. It's all very cut and dry -- except for his motive, since he doesn't want to explain his actions.
       The lawyer who gets the call to defend Collini is Caspar Leinen, who had just qualified as a lawyer forty-two days earlier. While that meant he already had considerable experience under his belt -- the German system is more experience-oriented than, for example, American legal training -- this is something of a different order of magnitude (and responsibility) than what he previously had dealt with. He comes to the case via legal aid -- not as a public defender, but a private lawyer, on the "legal-aid rota" (i.e. on call for cases such as this) -- a good way for a young lawyer to gain experience.
       The Collini Case is a sort of courtroom thriller, and part of its appeal is that it does present a very different system than the American or British ones familiar from American and British legal thrillers. Because it is less confrontational -- and more strictly by-the-book ("They would follow the codes of criminal procedure, an old law that determines the course of a trial. [...] (V)erdicts were quashed if a court failed to observe a single one of its clauses, four hundred of them or more in all" (yes, translator Bell struggles some with the legalistic aspects and language throughout -- and means here, for example, that verdicts can be quashed if even one clause is not properly observed) -- it's a bit harder to make drama out of much of this. The way a criminal trial such as this one is handled can be difficult to convey, and while Schirach tries his best not to over-explain aspects, he does get bogged down in details like the strange photo-op when the trial starts (the photographers then hustled out before the proceedings officially begin). Inevitably, some of the information -- like who exactly is involved in the trial-proceedings -- is awkwardly introduced, as when Leinen muses on the eve of the trial:

He thought about the fact that tomorrow three legally qualified judges, two lay judges, a public prosecutor, an accessory prosecutor and he himself would be sitting in court to try a man.
       The concept of multiple judges, including lay judges, but no jury -- and how exactly they work together -- is presumably somewhat confusing to readers not familiar with this system. The involvement of a prosecutor representing, in essence, Meyer (or, in this case, especially the company he left behind) -- as opposed to just the government prosecutor -- might also strike readers as unusual (especially when in this case that prosecutor plays a much bigger role in the trial than the public prosecutor). And since the proceedings aren't strictly adversarial, Leinen's role as defense attorney also works somewhat differently than in, for example, the American system. Schirach tries to weave all this information into his story, but not all of it is conveyed entirely clearly. (In particular, one anecdote Schirach offers, as an example of the Meyer company's hired gun (and the man who serves as 'accessory prosecutor' in the Collini trial) Richard Mattinger's tenacity, surely also confuses: doubting a woman's claim that her husband raped her he had called her to the stand and began his questioning with: "Would you care to admit that you've been lying?"; she doesn't care to, and he keeps questioning her -- and then keeps questioning her for fifty-eight more days, beginning each time with that same question. Not surprisingly, she breaks down on the fifty-eighth day -- leaving, however, unexplained what kind of insane judicial system (and presiding judge) would permit the questioning of not just a witness but rather the (apparent) victim in an otherwise straightforward case for anywhere near so long, tying up a court and a case for months .....)
       Complicating matters in the Collini case, Leinen discovers early on that he knew the victim -- knew him well, in fact, in his childhood, so well that when he visits the Meyer house to go through Meyer's papers the housekeeper greets him warmly, saying: "how good to see you home again too". Meyer was an influential figure for young Leinen, but the conflict of interest doesn't seem to particularly bother anyone -- Collini is fine with it (though he seems fine with almost anything, except telling his lawyer why he did it), and no one else takes issue with it either. The case also brings Leinen back in closer touch with Meyer's grand-daughter, Johanna (whose marriage has conveniently fallen apart ...), making for more potentially conflicting interests.
       Of course, the big question is: why did Collini do it ? And then there's the question of whether that reason can affect the outcome of the trial.
       Leinen hunts for connections between Meyer and Collini, but can't find any, and Collini doesn't help him out. Still, given that this is Germany, and that we know from the age of the victim that he was in his prime during the Nazi years, it doesn't take a genius to realize that maybe the connection lies in the war years -- even (?) though Collini must have been a child then .....
       On a (rather late in coming) hunch during the course of the trial -- conveniently adjourned for ten days because one of the lay judges: "fell ill with a bad attack of flu" -- Leinen goes digging for information out of town. Coyly, Schirach has him go simply to Ludwigsburg -- not revealing what exactly the building is where he spends so much of his time over the next few days, even noting -- without naming it -- just that: "The government department that Leinen had come to visit had moved there only the year before, in 2000". Maybe German readers all know what he means, maybe it's meant to come as a surprise to everyone; in any case, it's hardly a surprise that the place is Nazi-connected. The place where Leinen digs up the dirt is, as Schirach later does actually finally spell out, the Federal Archive in Ludwigsburg -- home to the 'Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crime'.
       Yes, Hans Meyer turns out to have once been SS-Sturmbannführer (apparently the equivalent of a major in the army) Hans Meyer, and as such had blood on his hands. And so the link to Collini is established.
       So The Collini Case progresses, predictably but intriguingly enough, into the story of and behind a revenge-killing -- as it was always clear the crime had to be. Schirach briefly shifts the story to Italy during World War II to present what happened there -- not his strong suit, but it gets the job done -- but otherwise he focuses on the present-day. Along the way there are other small twists of some interest: the Meyer-company efforts to steer Leinen away from this PR-poison, even by trying to bribe him, for example. And there's the potential romance with Johanna ..... And Schirach even comes up with an explanation of why Collini waited until 2001 to act.
       But, as it turns out, the purpose of all of this is for Schirach to point out another injustice -- a failure of the law itself (a failure slipped into the law in 1968). This is actually pretty interesting, and Leinen's courtroom heroics -- though, again, hardly American-style theatrics -- lay out this case fairly well. Unfortunately, it's a somewhat awkward fit with the rest of his story -- as then also demonstrated by Schirach's unconscionable cheap ending regarding the fate of Collini in all this. Didactic overkill doesn't completely kill the novel, but it's more than the novel (or Schirach) can really handle.
       There is a lot here that is of interest, and Schirach's quick sketching of scenes and quasi-objective and neutral tone are quite effective for such a law- and process-dominated work. He tries to juggle a bit much -- a couple of scenes of intimacy are particularly awkward, beginning with Mattinger being pleasured by his Ukrainian girl-toy -- and is a bit too ruthless in just getting to the quick (especially in disposing of Collini at the end, when he becomes an inconvenience). The novel does walk readers through a young, talented lawyer learning the ropes on the fly quite well. But Schirach also has these very big ambitions, and has a specific point in mind; unfortunately, he didn't find the ideal match to accomplish that with his story and how he has presented it.
       The legal terminology makes Anthea Bell's English-English even more conspicuous than usual, and while American readers are presumably familiar enough with British white-wigged courtroom dramas from television and books to not be thrown too much by that, it does does make the whole proceedings feel all the more foreign. The terminology does give Bell some trouble too, but even beyond that, this is not her finest work; the source material shares some of the blame (Schirach can at best be described as an ... unusual stylist), but not all.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 November 2013

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The Collini Case: Reviews: Ferdinand von Schirach: Other books by Ferdinand von Schirach under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ferdinand von Schirach, the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, is a German lawyer and writer. He was born in 1964.

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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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