Cover of GuiltGuilt by Ferdinand von Schirach, translated by Carol Brown Janeway (Chatto & Windus)

“. . . and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Ferdinand von Schirach might have taken his theme from Hobbes. Instead he takes it from Aristotle: “Things are as they are.”

Either motif would serve for this slim collection of short stories drawn from von Schirach’s practice as a German defence lawyer – though necessarily, I would think, elaborated or disguised to preserve professional confidence and perhaps also polished for dramatic perfection. The stories hold in tension the banality of crime and its often hideous consequences, recounting both the predictable course that most offending takes and the inexorable occurrence in it of the unexpected.

In one story von Schirach describes in chilling detail the mentality of the psychopath lying in wait for a woman whose killing he has meticulously planned. As he gets out of his car to abduct her he is knocked down by an inattentive motorist. The police, checking routinely on his death, find in his flat a horrifying assembly of knives and diagrams, making clear what he was about to do. The motorist gets a prison sentence for running him down.

In another, after years of physically abusing his wife, a husband is battered to death in his bed. The wife confesses, and the medical evidence confirms the years of violence she has undergone. It is only when the judge has found a way of acquitting her (quite possibly against the law, since it is hard to establish self-defence against a sleeping victim) that it dawns on von Schirach that the weapon was too heavy for the wife to wield, that it bore none of her fingerprints, that there was no blood on her blouse when the police arrived, and that the killer must have been her lover.

Every practising lawyer can confirm the occurrence of this kind of surprise – the surprise which in retrospect is no surprise because it was always within the logic of events. It just didn’t fit the linear thinking that police officers and lawyers, perhaps even more than others, bring to bear on human conduct.

It’s not necessarily the job of literature to point a moral or adorn a tale, but there is a moral here. It is that the apparent obviousness of cause and effect on which circumstantial evidence relies in order to obtain convictions fails to make any allowance for the unexpected. As a trial judge I used to invite juries to ask themselves, before they dismissed one side or the other’s case as too improbable to be true, when they had last said to someone, “You’re not going to believe what happened to me today.”

There used to be a Situationist slogan, “Do not adjust your mind: there is a fault in reality.” Von Schirach’s lean prose and bleak realism do something not only to demonstrate the faults in reality but to adjust the mind to them.