This debut collection of eleven short stories by a prominent German lawyer is an excellent window into the psychology of crime. Each brief story (all apparently based at least in part on real cases) lays out the facts of a case taken up by a criminal defense lawyer who is also the book's unobtrusive narrator. Using economical and unadorned prose, the author is able to create a strong sense of the lives of the defendants, and the circumstances and choices that led to their legal troubles. There is a certain dry restraint to this approach that some readers may find a little lifeless, but I found it to be honest and even compassionate in its execution.
The crimes range from the relatively mundane (an elderly man snaps after fifty years of marriage to a shrewish woman and kills her, a sister kills her disabled brother after years of caring for him) to the extreme (a museum guard destroys the piece he has been guarding for 23 years, a schizophrenic young man attempts to slice off a portion of the woman he is deeply in love with so that he can eat her). What is unveiled over the course of most of the stories is not the mundane matter of guilt or innocence, but the underlying psychology of the individuals, and in these cases, the narrator is keen to express their humanity. However in a few stories, such as one about about a mysterious mute man who kills two skinheads who attack him on a train platform, or another about a Lebanese boy who creates a perfect alibi for his criminal brother, the author seems more intent in showing how the law can sometimes be circumvented by the truly clever.
The stories are fascinating, not only for their details and presentation, but for the small insights they offer into contemporary German society. Among the characters are a man who was adopted from Ethiopia, a Balkan refugee woman who ends up in the sex trade, a large family of Lebanese brothers, a Palestinian refugee, a Turkish street thug, and a Greek gangster. The German legal system is a character in its own right, with procedures (no juries), roles (prosecutors are supposed to be neutral participants), and goals that will strike the American reader as alien. But it's hard not to come away from this book thinking that the German system is somewhat better at producing true justice. Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys intelligent procedural crime fiction or television shows.