The Collini Case: A Novel
The Collini Case: A Novel (Viking Adult, 208 pp. $25.95 cloth, $15 paper) combines murder, love, greed, ambition, politics and Nazis. Written by Ferdinand von Schirach, a German lawyer-turned-novelist (and translated by Anthea Bell), it was a best seller in Germany.
The book raised questions about the attitude of postwar Germany toward its Nazi past, but it is primarily a fast-moving murder mystery and courtroom drama.
A rich industrialist is brutally murdered by Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant and retired factory worker, who shoots the victim in the head and then stomps his face into a bloody pulp. The murderer descends to the lobby, his shoes making a red track from the scene of the crime to the couch where he sits down, passively awaiting arrest. The accused is poor, and the authorities appoint a lawyer, Caspar Leinen, to defend him. It is Leinen’s first case.
The young lawyer is the book’s protagonist and hero. Despite brilliance in law school, he refused to take the easy way to affluence by becoming a cog in the commercial law system; Leinen wanted “to put on a robe and defend his clients.” But he meets obstacles; for example, the autopsy sickens him:
Leinen, unable to speak, did not say goodbye to anyone. One of the two police officers was wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt. Leinen stared at the shirt and began counting the stripes. He saw nothing but the shirt, concentrating on the stripes until he was outside…he felt the full force of the midday heat. He reached for the silver cigarette case in his jacket pocket. It was cold, and it was real. Hands shaking, he lit a cigarette.
It is powerful scenes like this that elevate The Collini Case.
The murder is no routine crime: The victim, it turns out, is the father of Leinin’s first love, and his benefactor in his youth. Horrified, Leinen wants to recuse himself but is dissuaded by a leading criminal lawyer. His client, however, is indifferent. Collini’s apathy is the crux of the mystery. The lawyer’s search for the murderer’s rationale takes him through the archives of Nazi Germany and its postwar legal system.
The gripping trial helps the reader forgive any pat coincidences of plot and character. The Collini Case addresses big questions—how ideology can influence jurisprudence and how heinous crimes may be insulated from justice by tricks of procedure. In addition, it is a great read.