Sex and mur­der in a small Ger­man town

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

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