Persson Giolito’s English debut, Quicksand (2018), was met with high praise but also some lazy comparisons to court room pot-boilers, it was a far too complex a novel for that to be true. Thematically, a more accurate comparison would have been Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin. Quicksand, set in the aftermath of a school shooting in Sweden, posed questions about degrees of guilt, the public and judicial rush to judgement and, fundamentally: “Why?” The novel opened up those issues as successfully as any literary novel.
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt revisits these themes. Again, extreme violence against a young person, sensitively but clearly defined, is at the heart of the story. Persson Giolito delves into the nature of guilt and the relationship between violent crime and society’s reaction to it. Does a two dimensional response to an appalling crime condemn Stig Ahlin by association? Was the subsequent legal process perfunctory? Is Ahlin guilty, and even if he is, does he have the right to an appeal?
As the novel deals with an appeal to the Supreme Court you might imagine this is would be a courtroom thriller but it’s not, the court action is peripheral and mostly off the page. There are two time lines, the first pivoting around the events of Katrin Björk’s murder in 1998 and, the second, the appeal fourteen years later. The sections dealing with the crime are gripping but this is not a page turner, the majority is a cerebral argument allowing the reader to weigh the issues. Beyond All Reasonable Doubt, however, is absorbing and the central character, Sophie Weber is very engaging so the novel never becomes dry.
Katrin Björk is fifteen, impressionable and in thrall to an older lover, that much is clear from the opening passage. She showers, prepares herself meticulously, a sacrificial lamb. Her parents are away so she is taking advantage of having the house to herself. Katrin walks the dog, showers again and prepares a three course meal – she aims to please. He arrives late, blurry eyed and drunk, careless of his appearance, he rejects the ‘rabbit food’ starter, he’s eaten anyway. In the bedroom the sex is brutal and abusive, this would be rape even if she were an adult. Things turn even more nasty, as she pleads with him, his misogynistic anger unloads. All Katrin wanted was something like a romantic movie, a young girl’s dream.
Fourteen years later, lawyer Sophie Weber meets up with her old mentor. Hans Segerstad, emeritus professor of law, who suggests that she undertake an appeal for Stig Ahlin, maybe the most hated man in Sweden. He has spent thirteen years in jail for the murder of Katrin. Weber doesn’t take it seriously, she thinks:
“…I need this case about as much as I need plantar warts and back taxes.”
Segerstad is deadly serious, he believes Ahlin, “Doctor Death”, is innocent. Ahlin, a researcher at the Karolina Institute, admitted having sex with Katrin, she was a carer for his mother. Weber is deeply sceptical but agrees to look at the trial transcripts. The sexual relationship, not a crime in Sweden, doesn’t mean Ahlin killed Katrin. However, his wife alleged that Ahlin abused their four-year-old daughter, claiming he is a paedophile. That accusation was never followed up because the murder investigation took precedence. Apart from one detail the evidence is circumstantial and Weber slowly comes around to the idea that Ahlin may have grounds for an appeal to the Supreme Court.
It would be a victory for Segerstad, a legal precedent, but Weber soon finds that she is a pariah for challenging the conviction, she is judged for her link to Ahlin. The evidence is weak, the appeal is about process and not guilt or innocence, these are not distinctions made by the public.
More than a decade after a brutal murder the case still troubles people, lawyers concerned about their reputations steer clear. Minds were made up before the trial and the heinous nature of the crime and the age of the victim, fifteen, led to a public lust for revenge. However, the trial was flawed, perfunctory and that may be the grounds for an appeal. That’s not to say that the man in gaol for Katrin Björk’s murder is innocent, but if his trial was flawed does he deserves an appeal?
The legal processes and societal attitudes equate the accused with the crime. Persson Giolito is questioning society’s ability to distinguish between the nature of the crime and the man standing trial for it? Stig Ahlin is a deeply unsympathetic character, despicable, but the need for resolution and retribution are not always aligned with justice. It’s these complex themes that elevate Beyond All Reasonable Doubt above the norm for a legal thriller.
Persson Giolito avoids the two things that would make this an ordinary beach read; a ridiculous ‘rabbit out of the hat’ moment in court and the verdict of not-guilty that is delivered just before the damning evidence is revealed and we discover a killer has got away with it. Thank goodness for that.
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt delves into what happened, the guilt or innocence of Ahlin is the mystery element of the novel. The motivations of witnesses and prosecutors are examined. In the process we can see the difference in attitudes to sex abuse, incest and murder over the last couple of decades. Ahlin’s behaviour is reprehensible but that doesn’t mean he’s a killer. Is the law a subtle enough instrument of justice as it stands? Do we allow it the room to be so?
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt is involving and intellectually intriguing, it faces us with uncomfortable questions about our attitudes and assumptions – prejudice in society. Those simply looking for a thrill will be disappointed but those prepared to savour the arguments will find this a satisfying read.
Persson Giolito is the daughter of Swedish legend Leif GW Persson and she is carving her own niche in scandi-noir.
The translator, Rachel Wilson-Broyles, deserves to be praised for a superb rendering of the intelligence of the novel into English. Malin Persson Giolito has an academic background in law and has worked for the European Union. She has written four novels. Quicksand, the winner of Best Crime Novel at the Swedish Crime Writers Awards, 2016, has recently been adapted for Netflix.
Paul Burke 4/4
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito
Other Press 9781590519196 pbk Jun 2019