The second novel shortlisted for this year’s International Dagger Award for translated crime fiction that I’ve managed to read is Ferdinand von Schirach’s THE COLLINI CASE. It is virtually a novella – at 190 pages of large-ish font and loads of white space – which makes it difficult to review meaningfully without committing the sin of spoiling and that just won’t do. If you want some details Mrs Peabody Investigates offers the best, spoiler-free synopsis I’ve seen of the book as well as providing some interesting discussion points. For a brief sense of what the novel is about I will say it concerns the legal case that eventuates when one man murders another in a luxurious Berlin hotel. The murderer never makes any claim to his innocence nor offers any motive for his brutal actions.
The judges’ comments published along with the shortlist for the aforementioned Award come into play with respect to this novel
“Questions of quality led to two long discussions by the judging panel: one is whether a socially important book which is otherwise not exceptional in originality or aesthetic quality is, nonetheless, an ‘outstanding’ book…Crime fiction can alert its publics to failures in laws and law enforcement, on the street, in the courts, and in legislation. It can perform the work of historical memory and bring injustices to public attention. Three of the shortlisted books raise these questions: one performs the work of publicity and has called the attention of its society to a questionable change in its laws…”
It is, I now assume, this novel which achieved that undoubtedly remarkable feat, apparently causing a sensation in Germany when released there in 2011 due in part to the alarming legal loophole it identified.
I applaud the Award judges for giving due consideration to the complex question of whether or not the social worthiness of a book can, or should, outweigh its literary merits but I think, on balance, I would not agree with the affirmative argument. THE COLLINI CASE is a very readable novel and a perfectly competent one but as a work of crime fiction it is not, in my opinion, outstanding. In fact in some ways it is absolutely mundane. It relies heavily on absurd coincidences for its drama, the broad truth of the suspenseful element at the heart of the book is not terribly difficult to imagine from the outset, it is distant and cold in its tone and it has several scenes which are completely pointless (the most memorable of these being the long, graphically detailed description of the murdered man’s autopsy which includes providing the weight of each of his organs). I love crime novels which explore social themes or shine a light on some element of our collective history or behaviour which demands scrutiny but I am wary of awarding books which do this without also offering the quality of storytelling and character development that we demand of other novels. I would not like to see a trend towards rewarding those who spruik for a cause at the expense of those who are great craftspeople.
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My first inkling that there was something notable about Ferdinand von Schirach was a comment by Norman Price from Crime Scraps Review when he pondered this year’s International Dagger shortlist
It is a bittersweet irony that the first ever Israeli crime novel to be shortlisted D.A. Mishani’s The Missing File appears alongside a book by the grandson of Baldur von Schirach, Reichhsjugendfuhrer and then Gauleiter of Vienna, a man who served 20 years for crimes against humanity. No one could blame author Ferdinand von Schirach for the terrible crimes of his grandfather, but equally I don’t believe he can absolve his family name by writing novels, however well intentioned.
I don’t know enough about the players involved to know if absolving his family’s name was part of von Schirach’s intent in writing the book but what this got me thinking about was how much we know about an author can play into how we feel about their writing.
These days it is almost impossible for the humble reader to avoid coming into direct contact with authors. Even if you don’t attend the many festivals, conventions and online hangouts occurring every week in some corner of the real or virtual world you can – in fact are often demanded to – follow authors on Facebook, twitter and their blogs and even the relatively disengaged reader could get a sense of an author’s personality and often their politics with only a modicum of ‘research’ (i.e. googling).
But is all this a positive thing? Should THE COLLINI CASE be judged on anything that occurs outside the novel? Should Ferdinand von Schirach’s family history or current behaviour play any role when considering the merits of the book? I’d argue quite vehemently in the negative but I also know it is often difficult to separate what one knows about a person from what that person does. I’m still annoyed that I found Susan Hill’s politics so objectionable in a newspaper column I stumbled across online that I felt the need to stop reading her Simon Serrailler series even though I’d enjoyed the first two immensely. And conversely, in those instances where I do ‘know’ an author in some way and find myself liking them I sometimes wonder if my feeling towards the person influences how I feel about their writing. I suspect I am in the minority of readers who is wary of literary festivals and generally avoids author interviews, Facebook pages and the like because really all I want to do is read, not worry about whether or not the author of the book I love is a wonderful human being or an utter pratt.
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As for whether or not to read THE COLLINI CASE I think it’s a good (not great) novel that most readers will enjoy. It is deliciously short and the scenes involving the legal complexities of the case offer brilliant, compelling reading. If you are going to read it I advise avoiding the blurb and almost every review I’ve seen of it unless you’re comfortable starting out with no element of suspense at all.
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