With his first book, the short-story collection "Crime," Ferdinand von Schirach hit a literary home run. He's done it again with his second collection, "Guilt" (translated by Carol Brown Janeway, Alfred A. Knopf, 160 pages, $24). Two slim books, with stories mostly between two and 10 pages long, but muscular and disciplined; they pack a wallop.
Von Schirach has tried more than 700 cases in Berlin, where he is a defense lawyer. His stories are based on the "murderers, drug dealers, bank robbers and prostitutes" he has represented.
His characters begin as ordinary people leading decent, contented lives. Then something happens. "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. That's the moment that interests me."
In "Funfair," a group of hardworking, civic-minded family men, playing as an amateur band, get drunk and assault a teenage girl in horrifying ways. A bored housewife in "Desire" takes to kleptomania. In "Comparison," a battered wife kills her husband in his sleep after he tells her he's going to rape their 10-year-old daughter. In the chilling 2 1/2-page "Anatomy," a man is about to attack a woman who had spurned his advances in a bar. "The set of dissecting instruments had been expensive. ... He'd taken photos of her secretly and glued her head onto pornographic pictures. He'd drawn in the line where he wanted to cut." But accident, or fate, has other plans for him.
At or near the start of each story is a brief, cold sentence of foreboding. "Children" begins: "Before they came to take him away, things had always gone well for Holbrecht." We know he's about to fall over a trip wire, and we tense for the moment. Dropped off at boarding school by his parents, before his torture begins, the boy in "The Illuminati" has a despairing thought. "He was twelve years old and he knew that all this was premature and much too serious."
Von Schirach never strays from a telegraphic style of short declarative sentences, the just-the-facts manner of the defense attorney who narrates each story. The translator gets the tone just right. Their apparent neutrality, however, is a thin veneer on roiling, complex consciences, his own as well as those of the protagonists. In the propulsive rhythm of a fast train, inexorably moving forward, like fate, the narration converts life's accidents into the precision of story.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.