The Collini Case is a bestselling short murder novel by a top German defence lawyer. It has been translated into English and seems to be doing as well in translation as it did on its home turf. Why is it so bad?
Not because it’s short and the type is big. And not because it’s a whydunnit rather than a whodunit.
It is so bad because it is a whydunit with no secret.
The blurb tells you that the defence lawyer in the story “makes a shocking discovery” which “hints at a terrible truth at the heart of modern Germany”. Corruption under Helmut Kohl? Willy Brandt was a member of the Stasi? Deep down the German people want to go on an economic spree like the Irish or the Greeks did? Could this be anything other than the discovery of a Nazi past?
No it couldn’t.
Von Schirach tries to be sly to protect his obvious mystery, so he doesn’t tell you the age of the victim, and the year the book is set, until you’re more than halfway through, but you learn these things long after you know them.
G.K. Chesterton wrote an essay on How to Write a Detective Story. In it he talked about writers who think it is their job to baffle the reader, “and that so long as they baffle him it does not matter if they disappoint him.” He goes on to say: “But it is not only necessary to hide a secret, it is also necessary…to have a secret worth hiding.” Otherwise the climax is an anticlimax. This is exactly the problem with The Collini Case. For more than a hundred pages von Schirach writes as if we haven’t figured out his secret: and it’s a secret not worth hiding.