Tis the season for shopping mall scuffles. A man with a red face prized the last Magimix (steel, 600 rotations per minute) from my hands yesterday, citing ‘the stress of January sales’. I got an apology, but not the blender. What is it that makes us so quick to flip?

In a far bleaker arena, this is a question that plagues Ferdinand von Schirach, the criminal defence lawyer whose most recent novel, The Collini Case, I reviewed here last year.

Von Schirach’s earlier books, Crime and Guilt – both bestsellers in Germany – are compilations of stories derived from real life offences. Von Schirach has been involved in literally hundreds of criminal cases. In none of those he sets out in Crime was the guilty party ever convicted before a court of law. At the heart of both books is apparently an attempt to understand, if not justify, what drove the people he met from apparent sanity to criminality.

A museum worker in Crime steadily becomes so obsessed with a sculpture of the Spinario  (boy extracting a thorn from his foot) that he starts hiding drawing pins in shop shoes, as if emulating the artistic scenario. He seems only to overcome his fixation when he smashes the museum marble to pieces. Even then the psychiatrist is unable to say whether or not he still poses a danger to the public. In another case, a man attempts to cut a chunk of flesh out of his lover’s back because he has a sudden urge to eat her. He had lived with her for two years without incident.

This is not pleasant reading. There’s next to no humour in either book. But von Schirach’s dry style is engaging, and, besides, he seems tacitly – and thankfully – to acknowledge that matters of rape and GBH are best described with an economy of words.

One of the most harrowing cases in Guilt involves the torture of a schoolboy by his contemporaries, professedly under the Order of the Illuminati. Against the horror of the incident, Von Schirach subtly hints at the cold practicalities which confronted him professionally. The boy’s headmaster asked him ‘to represent the interests of the school’. He succeeded in reassuring him that the boy’s parents would not be suing the school; the criminal action against the guilty boys would not be public.

Unsurprisingly, von Schirach tends to exhibit rather a grim view of humanity. Flashing back and flashing forward on people’s lives as if clutching for explanations, he frequently finds himself unable to qualify the suddenness of their blood lust. Who would have known that it would take a well-mannered doctor fifty years before he finally snapped and butchered his nagging wife? Before the incident, which is described in Crime, the doctor was praised among friends as a saint. After the murder, he was permitted to serve his punishment on daytime release, as a greengrocer.

The way von Schirach presents the evidence of each case is often such as to suggest that anyone could lose one’s head at any time. Most troubling is the fact that that moment is rarely premeditated. Tapping into our innate insecurity about our own limits, Von Schirach makes the most gruesome tales at once readable, and oddly addictive. Fascinating, if not feel-good.

Tags: Crime, Law and order, Morality, Non-fiction, Psychology, Society