Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 224 pages; 2016. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
A quiet, slow-moving and devastating examination of a 50-year marriage that ends in murder, Anja Reich-Osang’s The Scholl Case is a true crime book with a difference.
That’s because it doesn’t examine the crime, nor the resultant trial, in too much detail. What it does do is build up a thorough portrait of two wildly different individuals — including their troubled childhoods, their early struggles as a couple and their later success as social climbers — whose life together wasn’t always as it seemed.
Brigitte Scholl was in her 60s and ran a well-regarded beauty salon in Ludwigsfelde, a small town to the south of Berlin. In late 2011 she disappeared while out walking her beloved dog in the woods near her home. A few days later Brigitte’s husband and adult son found her body in the woods. She had been strangled to death and was lying partially covered by moss in a shallow grave, her dog dead beside her.
Brigitte’s husband, Heinrich — once the most successful mayor in East Germany, a man who had done so much to create a thriving town after the fall of the Berlin Wall — was arrested and charged with her murder. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment.
Story of two people in a strange marriage
The book is based largely on observations made during an eight-month trial and extensive interviews with friends, relations and business colleagues of both Brigitte and Heinrich. The author also interviewed Heinrich after the trial was over and used letters and articles he had written about his life as material for the book.
What emerges is a painstaking portrait of a marriage between two people that might have looked idyllic from the outside but was actually quite troubled behind closed doors.
Heinrich had risen from humble roots (and a cold, unloving household) to become a successful local politician. To his constituents, he gave the impression of a decisive man always in charge, but at home he was hen-pecked and bullied.
Brigitte, who also came from a humble background and had suffered multiple tragedies in her life (including the suicide of her mother and, later, her sister), was regarded as something of a local beauty. She was well liked by the women of the town, many of whom were clients in her salon. But she was known to have a cruel streak.
A Swiss business partner of her husband was asked out of the blue whether he smoked; she’d noticed he had such yellow teeth. A local councillor was warmly advised to get the nape of his neck shaved. Her remarks were poison—small, well-measured injections, with which she could silence an entire table. Most of all, she liked to make a spectacle of her husband. If they had friends round and the men wanted to watch football, she would say that Heiner had to wash the car first. She’d get him to cut the hedge, and if she wasn’t satisfied with the result, she’d have the gardener in to redo it the next day. Customers overheard her ordering him to mow the lawn— ‘and that means now, not this evening.’
But Heinrich was no angel. When he retired he moved out of the family home and took up with a Thai prostitute. Together they lived in an apartment in Berlin, but she bled him dry and took up with someone else behind his back. Later, with his life and reputation in near ruin, Heinrich moved back in with Brigitte, who made him sleep in the basement with all his belongings.
To the outside world their marriage was back on, but it was clearly just a pretense. Brigitte was murdered just a little while later.
Compelling story but drags in places
As much as I love true crime books that use the devices of the novel to tell the story, I have to admit this one gets a bit bogged down in places. It’s a good read — compelling and well written in clear, concise prose — but it does tend towards the soporific. The picture of Heinrich’s life is so detailed that I’m not sure it adds terribly much to the overall story.
What I did find interesting was the trial itself (in Germany, criminal offences are tried by a judge, or panel of judges, not by a jury) and it was fascinating to find out how Heinrich’s behaviour changed in the immediate aftermath of the murder, which suggested he was either covering his tracks or befuddled by grief.
A lot of the evidence was circumstantial and witnesses were often confused or changed their story. Despite Heinrich’s son turning against him, Heinrich has always protested his innocence. Even the author, who takes great pains to keep herself out of the story, lets slip her own doubt at the very end of the book:
Is this an ice-cold murderer and a liar speaking? Or is it a madman? Or a victim of the justice system? Heinrich Scholl makes for a very convincing innocent.
The Scholl Case was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction in 2017.