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THE ARBOGAST CASE
by Thomas Hettche
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, November 2003
336 pages
$25.00
ISBN: 0374138125


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Hans Arbogast is a 28-year-old traveling salesman who lives up to all of the stereotypes associated with that profession. Whenever he is on the road, he takes advantage of every opportunity he finds to engage in casual sex, despite the fact that he is married.

In September 1953, he picks up a female hitchhiker by the name of Marie Gurth. As they travel through the Black Forest, they stop to eat and find they can easily communicate with one another. As they continue, the inevitable happens and they stop in a wooded area to engage in rough sex, with Marie demanding that Hans increase the violence of the act. At the conclusion of their second round of intercourse, Hans finds that Marie is no longer moving. In fact, she is dead. In a panic, he takes her body and hides it in a blackberry patch in a remote area.

A few days later, Hans feels remorse and informs the police about Marie's death. He is immediately suspected of having murdered her. The attorney who represents him during his trial makes a very bad mistake by not challenging the testimony of an expert forensic pathologist who has drawn several erroneous conclusions that don't even match up to the results of the autopsy, forming his opinion merely by looking at photographs and not the actual body. As a result, Arbogast is imprisoned.

It is 14 years later before someone takes an interest in what happened with Arbogast and is able to reopen the case. It would appear that the first trial was a complete travesty. The problem that Hans' new lawyer, Dr Angsar Klein, has now is finding another forensic expert willing to contradict the testimony of the first expert. Eventually, he is able to convince Dr. Katja Lavans to review the evidence. She travels from East Germany to testify in the second trial. As the result of an encounter that she has with Arbogast, the reader is left to wonder whether he is as innocent as everyone is proclaiming.

THE ARBOGAST CASE is based on an actual criminal case which caused an uproar in the German press. Although the book was slow paced and at times overly detailed, it remained an engrossing read. The first half of the book detailed Hans Arbogast's incarceration, the impact on a human being of being detained in a place with no stimulation, his decline into less than what he had been. The second half of the book covered the retrial, and a sense of tension remained throughout. I wished that some more focus had been placed on Arbogast's transition back into a civilized life.

The language of the book was eloquent, all the more amazing since it was translated from the German. The legal aspects of the book are very interesting to those coming from a different governmental system. The depiction of postwar Germany and its political environment is equally intriguing. A solidly engaging read that doesn't go for the gimmick.

Reviewed by Maddy Van Hertbruggen, October 2004

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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