The Scholl Case
Published 3 October 2016 by Text Publishing
Read from 15 October to 28 October 2016
“He wanted to be left in peace, and she wanted to show everyone that her world was still intact. That was their arrangement - a ceasefire after forty-six years of marriage.”
The Scholl Case is a true story about a marriage, about a small town, about sex and politics. In December 2011, Brigitte Scholl’s body was discovered in the woods near Ludwigsfelde, a small town south of Berlin. She and her dog Ursus, a 14-year-old Cocker Spaniel, had been strangled to death with a shoelace, their heads each covered with a plastic bag. The two had been missing for several days. Brigitte’s husband Heinrich Scholl, former Mayor of Ludwigsfelde, came to be the prime suspect in this brutal murder. But what would drive such a powerful and successful man to kill his ‘Lady Di’? Anja Reich-Osang begins her exploration of the Scholls’ marriage on Brigitte’s final day, before taking us back 50 years to the beginning of the Scholl’s marriage, exploring the minutiae of their lives and their partnership to reveal the chilling resentment that led to her final moments.
What ensues in Reich-Osang’s quest for truth is a dark tale of sex, politics and power. The tale of the Scholls’ marriage is a cold one, a far cry from their perfect public image and a fascinating insight into what lies beneath the narratives we paint of those in public life. Reich-Osang is an award-winning journalist in her native Berlin, and has clearly drawn on her professional experience to research this bizarre murder to a great depth. Her primary source research shines through, building a clear and cold picture of the Scholls and their lives in Ludwigsfelde and Berlin. The story is gripping and Reich-Osang’s brutalist writing style creates both a chilling atmosphere and strong sense of inevitability. Also strong is the sense of place - this book feels very ‘German’. Indeed it was the historical picture of a divided Germany that interested me most (which is perhaps an odd thing to say of a book centred on a brutal murder).
Reich-Osang builds a narrative of the Scholls’ lives and marriage, and we soon get to understand their characters to an uncomfortable depth. In this sense, The Scholl Case is certainly closer to the Truman Capote school of literary true crime than that of voyeuristic thriller true crime. In fact I’ve gone back and re-read In Cold Blood recently to remind myself of how things look at the pinnacle (it’s still an incredible book, by the way).
I really enjoy good literary true crime. But what bugs me about the genre more than anything is the invariable reference to Capote as an idol in the preface of every single damned book. The Scholl Case is sadly no exception to this. Prefacing your book by saying you are trying to do something in the vein of something that has gone before is not a helpful way of creating something that is your own. For me, once I see this doffing of the hat, I smell imitation everywhere. But the main gripe I have with those who source Capote as inspiration is their propensity for writing themselves into their stories. Capote (in)famously built a (perhaps unhealthy) relationship with the subject of In Cold Blood, but if you read the book closely Capote is not a character himself. The first-person never makes an appearance, and while its absence itself may bring criticism (for not clearly disclosing the personal nature of his relationship to his subject), it keeps the narrative tightly focused on the accused murderers and their victims.
Those who reference Capote, however, feel the need to show themselves as having taken the Capote approach by writing about their relationship with their subject. This is purely personal preference of course, but unless you’re Helen Garner (who cleverly uses her introspection in This House of Grief to reveal more about the broader themes of justice or gender, for example) or personally affected by the crime itself (for example, Phil Cleary in Just Another Little Murder), inserting one’s self into the book can only tear the reader away from the narrative you’ve worked so hard to build. This is something I particularly struggled with in Martin McKenzie-Murray’s A Murder Without Motive, in the Capote reference not only erroneously justified the writing of McKenzie-Murray into his own story, but left me with a sense that he lacked confidence in his own work against the backdrop of his idol. I quite enjoyed the book (and strongly disagreed with McKenzie-Murray’s self-doubt!), but felt duped by the comparison.
Reich-Osang’s relationship with Heinrich Scholl is certainly very interesting, as the ambiguity this relationship brings to our reading of his guilt or innocence. However, I felt that the passages of The Scholl Case that directly reflected on this relationship pulled me away from the narrative Reich-Osang had built. These reflections would be far more helpful to me if they were reserved for in-depth interviews and the writer’s festival circuit. In fact, they may well have been a source of curiosity that would have me engaged with this book for much longer after I finished it, googling for interviews with the author to learn more. It is for this reason that I can only throw The Scholl Case 3 bones, it what would have otherwise been a clear 4-bone read.
This said, I did enjoy this book quite a lot. It makes for captivating reading and creates a chilling picture of both a marriage, and a small community.