Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
This novel doesn’t start, it erupts. A huge man emerges from the lift on the fourth floor of the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, walks to a door, knocks, enters, shoots the occupant and grinds his heel into the victim’s face. He returns to the lobby, informs the receptionist and sits down to await arrest.
This is Collini and he is to be defended by Leinen who qualified only a month ago and now discovers that the victim is his old friend and much-lived father figure. After one of the longest and most graphic autopsies in fiction his reaction is pithy: “I can simply take the plate off my office door again and forget all about this.” There is no introspection in von Schirach; it’s all behaviour and dialogue.
The man who convinces Leinen that his job is to defend - anybody – is the assistant prosecutor, another old man and one of great experience. Age, youth, and youth on the edge of the dark abyss of adulthood, all are portrayed with the perceptiveness that the author demonstrated in Guilt. Not a word is wasted.
The tempo changes with the trial, the first days being uneventful. With no motive for the crime – Collini remains mute on every aspect except his guilt – the outcome is predictable. Then a judge falls ill and there is an adjournment. Leinen gets a whiff of the scent of a trail and leaves Berlin to spend five days in an unidentified government department in a southern city. He returns to conduct the last day of the trial….
An absorbing book and, as with Guilt, one wonders how much is due to the author’s original German, but whatever his standard, and it’s high, Anthea Bell has produced a work in English that is state of the translator’s art.