Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach

November 26, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

Crimes by Ferdinand von Schirach (2009) French title : Crimes. Translated from the German by Pierre Malherbet.

German_Lit_MonthThis read belongs to two events, it is my Book Club read for November and it’s my participation to German Literature month. Ferdinand von Schirach is a defense attorney at the Berlin court. His collection of short stories is made of fictionalized real crime cases he encountered during his career. The collection includes eleven stories of about 25 pages each. Here is the list of the stories in English:

  • Fähner
  • Tanata’s Tea Bowl
  • The Cello
  • The Hedgehog
  • Bliss
  • Summertime
  • Self-defense
  • Green
  • The Thorn
  • Love
  • The Ethiopian.

SchirachEach story relates a particular case. We enter briefly into the personal story of the person accused of a crime. We are told the facts of the case and how it was judged. The prose is sober, without pathos. He never hides the horror of the crimes but still shows you how it happened and tries to understand why. He also gives us information about the German justice system which I found very interesting.

I won’t get into each story, it would be too long and would spoil the fun for prospective readers. I’ll just say they are varied, about blood crimes, bank robberies, break-ins or assaults. Their common denominator? Things aren’t as simple as they seem and the criminal’s life is unusual.

The titles of the stories are the same in French than in English, except for the first one (Les pommes, or Apples) and Green, which became Synesthésie in French (Synaesthesia). While I recognize in the choice of Synesthésie the French tendency to use complicated words when it’s not required, the change of the first title is important. Fähner is the name of the murderer of this particular story. I downloaded the Kindle sample of the German edition of Crime and the title of the first story is actually Fähner. So the change comes from the French translator. Les pommes relates to a part of the story originally named Fähner. It is not a whimsical change. Indeed, Crimes opens with a quote by Werner K. Heisenberg, The reality we can put into words is never reality itself and it closes with another quote Ceci n’est pas une pomme. (This is not an apple), left in French in the original edition of the book.

Magritte_PommeIt is actually the title of a painting by René Magritte and it echoes with the opening quote and the French title of the story opening the collection. With his series La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), Magritte represents an apple and writes it is not an apple. It is the representation of an apple, the image of an apple but not an apple in itself. There’s something beyond the image and what he paints is not the real thing. You can’t eat it or touch it. It gives you the illusion of knowing what an apple is. With this last quote, it seems to me that von Schirach reminds us that there’s more beyond the words. His stories are based on true cases but they don’t tell the truth or show you the real person. It remains a story, a representation of the facts and characters interpreted by the writer. What we’ve just read is not reality but a representation of reality.

Highly recommended.


  1. November 27, 2015 at 12:26 am

    I have a copy of this Emma.


    • November 27, 2015 at 9:42 pm

      I’m sure you’ll like it.


  2. Tom Cunliffe
    November 27, 2015 at 1:15 am

    This looks very interesting Emma – I read The Girl Who Wasn’t There and really enjoyed it. Von Schirach is a very original and innovative writer. I will watch out for Crimes – you have made me interested in it


    • November 27, 2015 at 9:43 pm

      It’s an excellent read. I’ll look up The Girl Who Wasn’t There.


  3. November 27, 2015 at 9:27 am

    I’m glad you liked it, Emma. I found his sober style quite refreshing and loved to learn more about the justice system.


    • November 27, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      Thanks for pointing it to me. I bought it after reading your review.


  4. November 28, 2015 at 12:11 am

    The fact that the author is a defense attorney is a real life defense attorney seems to give this collection a lot of credibility.

    It is neat that he wrote an entire series of stories based upon his experiences as opposed to one or two long novels.


    • December 1, 2015 at 2:32 pm

      You can feel that the writer knows how the system works, and not just from reading. He’s got that patina you only get from experience.
      Like Caroline, I was really interested in his comments on that part.


  5. December 1, 2015 at 11:32 pm

    It does sound pretty good. Did you read them all in one go or space them out?

    It’s refreshing to have crime stories about something other than murder. Surprisingly rare.


    • December 2, 2015 at 10:00 pm

      I didn’t space them out a lot. Usually, when I read short stories, I need a pause between two stories, but not here. Perhaps it’s because they have a common background of crime and subsequent trial.

      It’s real life crime stories, so not all are about murder.


  6. leroyhunter
    December 4, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Absolutely loved these, and his second collection (Guilt). His longer book (The Collini Case) was interesting but I thought less effective than these.

    The tone of the stories is marvellous. You’re quite right that they all have something off-centre, distinctive about them…but it never becomes forced or a gimmick.

    Guy, Max – I think you’d definitely go for these.


    • December 5, 2015 at 7:22 pm

      It’s good to know his other books are good as well.
      His profession gives a special ring to the stories. You can hear that he knows very well how the system works and that he’s seen lots of different cases.


  7. September 26, 2020 at 6:50 am

    I just finished it and I absolutely loved it. I could read stories like that endlessly.


    • September 26, 2020 at 7:18 am

      Glad you loved it. Try Crimes examplaires by Max Aub. (see my billet)


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