Sunday, February 11, 2018

Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
originally published as Verbrechen, 2009
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
188 pp


"The reality we can put into words is never reality itself." 
-- Werner K. Heisenberg, epigraph

I watched the most interesting tv show last week on MHZ called "Crime Stories" and realized when the name Von Schirach popped up that I had this book on my shelves.   Instead of doing my normal thing where I read the book first, I stayed up late and watched the entire show; the next day I grabbed the book and started reading.   In the series the first episode grabbed me and wouldn't let go; reading the book was the same.  

There are eleven short fictional vignettes here, all of which are linked by the concept of guilt. My understanding is that they're are all based on the cases of former clients of Von Schirach, who is a somewhat controversial German defense attorney and very well-known writer. This book, after its publication, remained  on Der Spiegel's bestseller list for 54 weeks, according to Wikipedia.   These are not your standard legal defense narratives by any stretch;  it is the circumstances leading up to the commission of each crime which informs the basis of each story.   It is also an exploration of not only what constitutes the idea of guilt,  but also what it is that lies at the core of each human in this book.  These people are not the sort of monsters one might expect in cases such as these; some of them make very bad judgment calls, some are driven by mental illness, while others, well, those I'll leave for readers to discover.   He also, I think, asks us to consider the nature of sentencing and justice -- given the human factors beneath what these people have done, is it right in every case to hand down a one-size-fits-all-by-law, prescribed sort of judgment?

The first story,  "Fähner," sets the tones of  both writing and discourse within this book.   The author employs a rather lean, unemotional sort of prose style to relate the tale of  a GP from Rotweil who, as the cover blurb notes, finally got a "reprieve" the day he took an axe to his wife's head.  But Fähner is no hardened criminal; as we're told at the outset his "life wasn't anything that gave rise to stories. Until the thing with Ingrid." The thing is, while we have the basic outline of Fähner's life with his wife, there are no detailed scenes between the two of them that allow us to see exactly what was happening; the author leaves it to the reader to read between the lines.   But there's a great scene in this story where, on the night before he turns 60, he looks at a photo of his wife taken during their honeymoon (one he'd salvaged and hidden after she'd thrown away  their wedding photos) , sits on the edge of the bathtub, and cries "for the first time in his adult life." It's the understanding that he comes to at this point that really allows the reader to see inside of his mind and to feel some empathy for this man; his story continues through trial, judgment and sentencing.  Throughout Fähner's experiences, and actually, throughout this entire set of stories, we are called upon to consider something Von Schirach's uncle once told him:  "Most things are complicated, and guilt always presents a bit of a problem."

As the author himself says,
"All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it's very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won't bear the weight of some people and they fall through"
and it is that moment that interests him.  How many people in our lives  might be just a set of circumstances away from that moment is another thing we ought to consider; it's a point he makes very clearly in this book:
"If we're lucky, it never happens to us and we keep dancing. If we're lucky."
I was floored after finishing it, and there were moments in this book where I had to put it down and really think before I could go back to it.  Whether or not anyone will sympathize with the people in this book is an individual judgment call, but it is really tough not to feel something.  The book itself is  also an excellent use of crime fiction as a way to understand not only human nature, but also in offering insights into society itself.

Definitely recommended; not at all usual crime fare but something unique.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Crooked House, by Agatha Christie

Bantam, 1999
originally published 1949
215 pp


"I think people more often kill those they love than those they hate. Possibly because only the people you love really can make life unendurable to you." 

As much as I value these beautiful leatherette editions of Christie's work, mainly because my husband bought them for me some time ago, the covers have absolutely no soul.  I have a deep love for vintage cover art, and the original cover of Crooked House really can't be beat: just looking at that picture conjures up something sinister and sort of whets the appetite for what

might be found between the covers, and since the bulk of the action takes place within the walls of this house, Three Gables, its distorted appearance here is beyond appropriate.

Crooked House is, according to Christie herself in An Autobiography (1977), one of two of her favorite books, the other being Ordeal by Innocence.  As she says, those two are the ones "that satisfy me best."  While maybe I wasn't as satisfied by Crooked House as Christie was, it was still a good read.  Last week I rented the recent film based on this novel but realized I hadn't read Crooked House in eons, and had quite forgotten the plot, so it seemed like a good time to refresh my memory.

I think more than in any other Christie crime novel, Dame Agatha takes us right to the heart of the matter from the very outset.  It seems that wealthy tycoon Aristides Leonides has died, and the doctor has refused to sign a death certificate until there is a post mortem.  His granddaughter Sophia pays a visit to her fiancé Charles Hayward, and tells him that she believes that his death was no accident -- that he may have been killed.  The need for a post mortem makes Sophia think that "It's quite clear that they suspect something is wrong," and that their plans for marriage have to put on hold since they "can't settle anything until this is cleared up."  She would like Charles to help her and to come to the house and to see her family "from an unbiased point of view," giving him access to everyone in the house.    She also reveals that even if her grandfather's death turns out to have been murder and not an accident, "it won't matter -- so long as the right person killed him."

Even his father, the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, echoes this sentiment, and Charles will hear it more than once from several Leonides family members as he enters Three Gables to hopefully get to the bottom of what's going on.  Most everyone already thinks they know who killed Aristides, and considering the obvious suspect(s), that statement seems like an obvious case of upper-class snobbery.  But wait.   Charles isn't so sure that he agrees with their idea of the murderer.   He can see both sides of the issue, but even more importantly, as he says, he can see the "human side of things," which the family could not.  He puzzles over the
"two sides of the question -- different angles of vision -- which was the true angle ... the true angle..."
because in a "little crooked house," one that "had a strange air of being distorted," Charles realizes that  trying to come up with the right perspective from "the true angle" will be difficult.  At the same time, he has to contend with the idea that if the murderer is one of the members of the family, as Sophia realizes, it would reveal a "crookedness" or distortion among one of their number.

from Deep Work

In a big way, this book is less about plot or solving the crime than it is about delving into human nature; because of Charles' relationship with Sophia, he is made privy to each person's particulars so we get to see each and every member of this household as an individual rather than just as a potential suspect.  We are also let into this three-generation family dynamic, which adds another dimension to this story. Normally this sort of "closed circle" form of mystery allows for the culprit to be caught and order to be restored, but then again, this is no ordinary mystery story.  Sure, there are more deaths, some strange goings on with Aristides' will, and other normal trappings but this one brings us right into the heart of human nature territory, and will lead to a most startling conclusion that was completely unexpected.

After giving it some thought, I've decided that I actually enjoyed this novel mainly because it is so very different from most of Christie's other work; it becomes much more of a personal story in the long run rather than just another detective tale and I think that's what sets it apart. And here, plot is much less important than the examination into human nature, although I have to admit that while it was a quick read, it moved rather slowly until we come to those last few eye-opening pages.

I enjoyed seeing this book come to life in movie form; it wasn't great, but it was definitely fun.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

*The Dorrington Deed-Box, by Arthur Morrison

Wildside Press, 2016
originally serialized in The Windsor Magazine, January - June 1897
originally published in 1897 by Ward, Lock
139 pp


Picking up from where I left off in December, we roll into the 1890s with this little gem, The Dorrington Deed-Box. While it continues the detective-fiction craze of the late Victorian period, Horace Dorrington, of the firm Dorrington and Hicks,  is no run-of-the-mill private enquiry agent.  Au contraire -- the back-cover blurb refers to him as a "cheerfully unrepentant sociopath,"  as well as someone who doesn't shy away from a bit of "blackmail, fraud, or cold-blooded murder to make a dishonest penny."  The Dorrington Deed-Box was actually my second choice of stories by Arthur Morrison -- I had thought to read his collection of Martin Hewitt stories, but Hewitt seemed a bit tame compared to Dorrington and I wanted something different than the usual detective fare.  Trust me, I got what I asked for in this book.  The fun here is not so much in the crime solving but in watching Dorrington slowly ensnaring his victims -- he is the proverbial spider inviting the fly into his carefully-constructed web.

There are six short stories in this collection which begins with "The Narrative of Mr. James Rigby."  In a strange sort of twist, Rigby becomes our guide through five more nefarious adventures of this slimy worm of a detective,  which Rigby unearths from documents left behind in the offices of Dorrington and Hicks after his own harrowing experience.  As he says,
"...among their papers were found complete sets, neatly arranged in dockets, each containing in skeleton a complete history of a case.  Many of these cases were of a most interesting character, and I have been enabled to piece together, out of material thus suppllied the narratives which will follow this." (28)

from Project Gutenberg Australia

It seems that Rigby wants everyone to understand the type of fellow Mr. Horace Dorrington really is,  and if anyone should know, it's Rigby.   His own encounter with Dorrington obviously left several scars, including the fact that he never received any sort of justice in his case.  The book exposes the true nature of the detective, who presents one side of himself to some people and his real self to others.  While I won't go into the individual cases, Rigby enlightens us as to Dorrington's sinister deeds in

"The Case of Janissary"
"The Case of the 'Mirror of Portugal"
"The Affair of the 'Avalanche Bicycle and Tyre Co. Limited' "
"The Case of Mr. Loftus Deacon" and
"Old Cater's Money."

in which we find the detective involved in crimes ranging from the upper-class, race-track set on down to a moneylender who makes Scrooge seem generous.  The Dorrington Deed-Box is not only cleverly constructed, but in the character of Dorrington himself, we find something quite different than the normal run of detectives up to this point in crime-fiction literature and I have to say it was refreshing.  My only issue with this book is that there are things in these stories that "skeleton" accounts would not offer, and although Rigby sort of covers that fact by saying he'd picked up things from various people about these cases, it still led me to wonder how he could have constructed conversations and thoughts, etc.  In the long run though, it doesn't really matter -- this is my first exposure to a late-Victorian sleazy detective and I thought it was just great.