Sex and murder in a small German town
True crime is an odd category, not least because crime is such an entertaining subject to make up stories about yet in its darkest real-life aspect as murder is a horror.
Helen Garner in The House of Grief, her riveting account of the Robert Farquharson trial, and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (now a film) has treated this area with the shimmer and ambivalence of the point-of-view novelist. Gideon Haigh in the recent Certain Admissions resurrected, with sweeping power, the ghost of a long-ago murder trial of John Bryan Kerr and the ambiguities surrounding it.
Now we have a weird nonfiction book from Germany about the ghastly death of a woman in her 60s and the subsequent murder trial of her husband. If Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case doesn’t quite hold a candle to Garner or Haigh, it is nonetheless a fascinating compari- son. It opens with a chapter of such sustained scintillation and engulfing sense of mystery that no one who starts reading it is likely to stop.
Brigitte Scholl had been married to Heinrich Scholl for 47 years when she was found dead, with her dog, in the woods. There was a semblance of sexual assault. Who could have done it but her husband?
Yet that seemed improbable (impossible) to his friends: he was a man who had built himself up from scratch to become the mayor of a small town in what had been communist East Germany in that epoch-making time of transition that came with unification.
The Scholl Case is a sort of wan fascination of a book, terribly sad in its outlines, consistently boggling in its detail as it uncovers, step by step, the desolations of an unhappy marriage. It seems some kind of allegory of German life when the reign of the Gestapo is replaced by the reign of the Stasi.
Not that there is any emphasis on the politics (or the oppression): it is simply there like a grey mist that forms a backdrop to these lives that yield such pitiless images of souls that could find no outlet except in forms of power or suffocation.
She ran a beauty salon. He ultimately ran the town. But she called the tune, and was forever telling him how many drinks he could have and what chores needed to be done.
At a given point he takes up with a Thai call girl who functions as some sort of mistress. His wife, too, turns out to have had some sort of affair, but he learns of this only belatedly when the files are opened after the wall comes down. It can’t have been any kind of trigger.
He had taken her son as his own, though as the story transpires, with the trial, his son turns against him. Heinrich comes across as a passive enigma of a man, intensely ambitious within his small compass, and Brigitte comes across as a formidable dominator.
The track record of their lives is presented as a set of stark improbabilities, partly because Reich-Osang, a Berlin journalist, is intent on uncovering the facts. She writes with a consistently fluency and command of detail but is not especially concerned with any artifice to shape the curve of suspense, or within it an attempt to grasp the intimate hopes of victim or murderer, or whatever shrouded possibility may have usurped their lives.
It’s partly because she doesn’t intensely psy- chologise her central figures that they stalk like such sketched impossible people. A bossy woman, a man who wants to be liked. A woman who’s damned if she’ll put up with any nonsense from anyone, a man who just wants to be understood but is in denial about the hammer blows of fate, even when it was his own hand — wasn’t it? — that reached for the hammer.
There is an enigma at the heart of The Scholl Case. Reich-Osang seems to respond to the story she tells with nothing but pity and terror, yet she is not at pains to dramatise this so she has no equivalent to the tumbling bewilderment and moral confusion that characterises Garner’s masterpieces of indeterminacy. And she does she have Haigh’s forensic eye for the sweep of the ball and the thud of the bat. She presents the story of a murder in a small town in Germany with a kind of hushed and horrified lameness, though the upshot of her bare revelations is to generate a sense of wonder.
The Scholl Case is less like Shakespeare than it is like one of his sources — a handkerchief, for heaven’s sake, a man possessed by jealousy, a melodrama. It presents in consistent, transparent fashion how a set of awful events seems to have unfolded.