During the Second World War both Germans and Allies routinely shot civilians in reprisal for attacks on their armed forces. One shudders to think that a ratio could even be set at which such killings could be considered legitimate. In 1941 Hitler set the bar at 100 civilians per soldier. How high is too high?

This question plagued the defence of an Italian man named Fabrizio Collini some sixty years later. Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case is based upon that historical trial.

Collini, who has lived in Germany since the 1950s, enters the luxury hotel suite of a man named Hans Meyer. They are near the Brandenburg Gate. He shoots him from behind, repeatedly, and stamps in his skull until it no longer resembles a skull. He gets himself arrested, says that he did it. Motive unapparent. A young defence lawyer called Caspar Leinen is given the case. It is his first.

Von Schirach describes the killing and post mortem with an entirely appropriate, but eerie economy of words. For the first half of the book, at least, he is clinical in his treatment of events. Even Leinen’s lovemaking is only half apparent; the author flits between describing his seduction and the view from the window. It’s as though we’re mere passers-by, peeping in through the wooden slats of his bedroom blind.

The pace of the novel quickens towards its conclusion, but the first drama occurs early on. Leinen realizes that he knew the deceased and his family, and is now being asked to defend his killer. When the first plan to get his client to confess to manslaughter fails, he proceeds to uncover any possible motives for murder. Collini is seemingly wholly unconnected to Hans Meyer. This is a murder mystery.

Perhaps it is because its secrets lie in the War and the knotty German legal system of the mid twentieth century, or perhaps it is because the contemporary German legal system is so dramatically unlike the British legal system, but one easily finds oneself forgetting that Collini’s trial is set in the twenty-first century. As a character, Leinen would seem more at home in the 1930s. His daily routine is grey and timeless. His colleagues may speak in court of the zeitgeist, but that zeitgeist is rarely on show in this novel. For Leinen, for the prosecutor Mattinger, and conceivably too for von Schirach, himself a prominent defence lawyer in Germany, long hours in chambers have apparently precluded full immersion in society. But that lack only contributes to the oppressive, grey mood that weighs down upon the book.

This certainly isn’t a comfortable story, but it is an important one. Von Schirach’s late grandfather was the Reich Youth Leader of the Nazi Party, and the Collini case clearly resonates on a personal, but also a more universal human level. Like the central hall of the law court itself, with the allegorical figures and lofty walls which overawe Leiden, make him feel small relative to the law, one finds oneself surprisingly sucked into the perturbations of justice this case unfurls. And like all the best murder mysteries, this one has a twist.

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach is published by Michael Joseph (Penguin Group)

Tags: Crime, Fiction, German, translation