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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Beyond All Reasonable Doubt

Malin Persson Giolito

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To purchase Beyond All Reasonable Doubt

Title: Beyond All Reasonable Doubt
Author: Malin Persson Giolito
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 464 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: Beyond All Reasonable Doubt - US
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt - UK
Beyond All Reasonable Doubt - Canada
  • Swedish title: Bortom varje rimligt tvivel
  • Translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

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Our Assessment:

B : solid story and writing, if ultimately a little hollow

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 3/7/2019 Jeffrey Fleishman
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/6/2019 Vanessa Friedman
Svenska Dagbladet . 20/11/2012 Johanna Mo

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a taut, sobering ride, playing out against cold, rain and flinty skies. (...) The pace is quick and the writing fluid, although at times sentences ring flat, as if missing a beat or a bit of evocative imagery." - Jeffrey Fleishman, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A) somewhat arid, if absorbing, legal thriller (.....) It is both a strength and a frustration of Beyond All Reasonable Doubt that the author does not feel the imperative to explain too much or to tie her ending up in a neat bow. Instead, while by the end of the book the central question has been answered, even more have been posed -- and not in the way that sets up a sequel (though that could happen), but in the way that imitates life, in all its messiness and obfuscation. You kind of want to throw it against a wall." - Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Beyond All Reasonable Doubt centers on the brutal murder of a fifteen-year-old girl, Katrin Björk, in 1998. An unsympathetic thirty-five-year-old doctor, Stig Ahlin, admitted to having known and slept with the victim, and he was convicted of the crime -- but thirteen years after his conviction Professor Emeritus Hans Segerstad is pushing his former student, attorney Sophia Weber, to take up the case and cause, Ahlin's very late in the day appeal to the Supreme Court for a retrial. Sophia isn't very eager: an appeal for a retrial is near-hopeless -- "We might as well launch a campaign to get Stig Ahlin the Nobel Peace Prize. Our chance of success would be about the same", she notes, only slightly hyperbolically --, and isn't made any more tempting by the fact that she'd be working pro bono. And even beyond not being able to pay, Ahlin isn't anyone's idea of a dream client, either: never mind that he is one of the most reviled men in the country -- popularly known as: 'Professor Death' -- but Segerstad admits that Ahlin hates lawyers, and that he hasn't even had one for the past eight years. But Segerstad is also convinced he should be exonerated -- and that Sophia will be convinced too, once she goes over the record of the investigation and trial.
       Sophia is intrigued just enough to take a look -- and she has to admit that the picture that emerges isn't pretty. The picture of Ahlin for one -- he admitted to frequenting prostitutes, as well as to having slept with the very young victim (though with Swedish age of consent, then as now, fifteen there is no question here of statutory rape), and his wife had recently divorced him -- but also of the case:

I've certainly seen circumstantial evidence cases before. But one based on shakier grounds would be hard to find.
       It's a third of the way into the novel before Sophia comes to that conclusion, as Persson Giolito takes her time in getting Sophia fully on board. The novel starts off alternating chapters between the present and 1997 and 1998. A prologue chapter of sorts describes Katrin's death, in the family home into which she invited the killer, and prepared him dinner. Then the story moves back and forth between past and present, following the investigation in 1998 (as well as a few flashback chapters from earlier on) while Sophia considers the case and tries to follow up on some of the information more than a decade later. Eventually -- once the original investigation into Ahlin has been covered -- the narrative is almost entirely chapters from the present.
       There was practically no forensic evidence at the murder scene. Katrin's parents were out of town -- so they aren't among the suspects -- and there's no boyfriend or other suspicious figure in her circles that the police can (or bother to) find. When Ahlin basically offers himself up on a plate -- admitting having had sex with the girl -- the focus narrows quickly, and when they find that his former wife accused him of sexually abusing their four-year old daughter Ida they're convinced they have their man. The courts were also readily convinced -- helped by public opinion, which happily quickly damned the unsympathetic figure --, and Ahlin has been locked up ever since.
       As Sophia quickly learns, Katrin wasn't quite the perfect girl she was made out to be. A very good student, yes, but by the time of her death clearly troubled and acting out -- if not in a way most of those around her cared to notice. Certainly, however, there were other male figures she came in contact with who the police at least should have looked into, but didn't. Beyond that, there is practically no forensic evidence -- no convenient DNA or fingerprints -- and what little they did rely on in fingering Ahlin is more than suspect.
       Beyond All Reasonable Doubt is a sort of legal thriller -- but with none of the Law and Order-type theatrics that Ahlin catches on TV at one point:
This would never happen in a Swedish courtroom. Not even in Stig's own trial would the prosecutor have dared to say such a thing. It was theatrics pure and simple.
       But even aside from that, there's barely any glimpse of even un-theatrical Swedish courtroom drama. There are practically no courtroom scenes and relatively little about the steps in the legal process Sophia works her way through. Even the submission to the Supreme Court, when she gets to it, is almost anticlimactic -- not to mention what comes next:
The Supreme Court could, in principle, consider the petition for as long as they wished. Three weeks or four years.
       As to the announcement of the decision: it's not like the parties involved get called into court or anything. No, the Supreme Court just faxes (!) over their decision .....
       This realistic presentation of the judicial process is actually quite interesting, even if it's a bit short on the actual law. The media gets involved, with a 60 Minutes-type show helpfully siding with Sophia, as Persson Giolito usefully points out how significant -- and widespread -- public pressure and sentiment are. From the first, Sophia is made aware that her working on Ahlin's behalf will turn a lot of people against her, and even in its conclusion the story shows how process (the case going through the courts) and outsiders' certainty about right and justice can be at odds.
       Piecing together the original prosecution's failures is fairly straightforward, as Persson Giolito doesn't set the bar too high and one semi-pivotal piece of forensic evidence is easily debunked. Ahlin's original lawyers' failures, obvious and many though they are, are essentially only covered with hindsight: the actual trial, back then, is summarized fairly quickly, and Persson Giolito doesn't probe too much how and why that went wrong so easily -- beyond the fact that pretty much everyone, especially the public, seems to have decided that Ahlin was guilty. There are some complicating elements, notably the question of the sexual abuse complaint Ahlin's ex-wife lodged (but that was dismissed): certainly, there were problematic issues surrounding the girl -- but Persson Giolito leaves it fairly open as to what might have been behind them, a useful shadow hanging over much of the story.
       There's also a good deal about Sophia's life aside from the case: her somewhat complicated but still close relationship to her grandfather, whom she regularly spends time (and discusses the case) with, her law firm environment, her unsatisfactory relationships with men, one close if also complicated friendship. It makes for interesting reading, not quite a psychological study of the lawyer (that, indeed, gets less interesting when it veers towards the more psychological ...). The case itself, and Katrin, in some ways get short shrift -- with Persson Giolito giving herself something of an out by making (and ultimately leaving) the case one more of procedure -- she petitions for a retrial -- than a determination of Ahlin's guilt or innocence. That works quite well for much of the novel, but ultimately, in the way she resolves it, can feel like something of a cop out.
       If some of the bits feel a bit forced -- Sophia's sleeping (and generally running) around, or adolescent Katrin's change in character (and all its consequences) -- Beyond All Reasonable Doubt mostly moves along very quickly and well, the story gripping in a way quite different than its premise and summary might lead one to expect. It's hard for Persson Giolito to pull that all the way through, and it seems almost appropriate that Sophia literally drifts away in some of the latter stages of the novel, taking a boat out to sea, as also the novel then drifts over much of the waiting weeks and months. But all in all it's a solid and quite satisfying read -- though certainly not in the sense of all the ends getting neatly tied up: indeed, the only end that is neatly tied up (Ahlin's fate) is the least satisfactory one.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 June 2019

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Beyond All Reasonable Doubt: Reviews: Other books by Malin Persson Giolito under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Malin Persson Giolito was born in 1969.

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© 2019 the complete review

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