| -2.9°C Dublin

Guilt-edge writing

They say you should write about what you know and Ferdinand von Schirach knows crime.

One of Germany's most famous criminal trial lawyers, Von Schirach's book, Crime, has spent the past year on the bestseller lists in his own country. And it's no surprise considering the compelling material. Take the opening story, Fahner.

Before he marries his future wife, a young doctor, Fahner, makes a pledge. "I will never leave you," he tells her. But sadly, their love doesn't last and the union is not a happy one. Martial strife and discord means that Fahner's resolve is tested -- but not broken -- when it comes to that vow.

Finally, after years of unhappiness, the husband's resentments bubble to the surface. But the doctor is a man of his word so he won't break his promise. Like many old-fashioned German men, he believes in the sacred bond of the sworn word. He cannot leave.

So, Fahner fetches his axe and buries it in his wife's head. He may have killed her but true to his word, he never left her.

Recently translated into English, Crime is a slim but compelling volume of 11 cases that the 47-year-old Von Schirach has worked over the course of his stellar legal career.

As in Fahner, which sets the tone for the rest of the book, Von Schirach says that once-harmonious relationships provide all of the best material.

"Sex and hate -- they're usually at the root of the most interesting cases," he explains. His list of former clients is colourful, to say the least. He represented infamous former East German Politburo member Gunter Schabowski, the family of actor and legendary hellraiser Klaus Kinski, as well as an array of people on the fringes of German society. He believes that our lives can be shaped -- for better or for worse -- in an instant.

"We dance on a thin layer of ice, it's very cold underneath and death can be quick. But the ice won't bear the weight of some people," he says, evoking the struggles that many face in his book.

Von Schirach's background is as interesting as any of his clients.

His uncle was a famed submariner and amputee who invented a shotgun that could be used with one hand. After the war he became a judge before he used his most celebrated invention to take his own life. The suicide note evoked a sense of family guilt that could be traced back to Von Schirach's grandfather, Baldur von Schirach.


One of the architects of Hitler Youth, Baldur von Schirach was tried and convicted at the Nuremberg trials in 1946. Although he expressed some remorse for his crimes which may have saved his life, Baldur was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Von Schirach says his grandfather's crimes were incomprehensible to his family.

"For almost 400 years my family have been writing books," he explains. "I cannot understand how he could stay in a country where books were being burned. But what would you expect from a man who was also involved in the deportation of Jews from Vienna and described it as a 'contribution to European culture'."

Von Schirach's career as a trial lawyer -- forming a narrative out of testimony for delivery in a stuffy courtroom -- was the best preparation for writing. And it seems he's unlikely to run out of material any time soon - Garreth Murphy

Crime (€13.99, Vintage) is available now