Sophia Weber is driven, righteous and flawed, a crusading lawyer in a world where truth does not grant redemption and where innocence crashes against the deeper cruelties of our nature.
With a messy personal life and a sharp legal mind, Weber is the moral center of Malin Persson Giolito’s Swedish thriller “Beyond All Reasonable Doubt.” The novel tracks a mission to right a wrong and plunges into the egos, deceptions, lies, vendettas, presumptions and questionable police work that pervade a legal system and society’s need for retribution.
It is a taut, sobering ride, playing out against cold, rain and flinty skies. Weber is fighting to get a new trial for Stig Ahlin – a.k.a. Professor Death – who was convicted years earlier of murdering a teenage girl. He’s also been accused of but never charged with sexually abusing his daughter. The press has cast Ahlin as a repugnant predator, but does that make him less entitled to fairness and justice?
The novel evokes a Scandinavia where herring is pondered and directness is a virtue even in its cunning. “Beyond All Reasonable Doubt” follows the author’s 2017 bestselling “Quicksand,” a socially conscious courtroom procedural that is now a Netflix series. A lawyer herself, Giolito is clever in the intricacies and personalities, including prosecutors, judges and journalists, propelling a justice system that whirs on sensation and jurisprudence.
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. Past bleeds into present, moving from the 1998 murder to Weber’s new investigation to exonerate Ahlin. She explores DNA, bite marks and forensics while navigating her own confused love life and a grandfather stingy in offering the respect she craves. A sailor, she finds repose upon the water, and despite her insecurities she’s a woman you’d want to have a drink with to discuss life’s strange incongruities.
Weber’s sense of isolation – the novel is translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles — in taking on the Ahlin case is captured when she’s at sea:
“She sailed into the wind, turned on the autopilot, and raised the mainsail. Up on deck she turned her face into the breeze and let the icy air shock her lungs. After unfurling the jib, she turned off the engine. She settled in at the rudder, pulled up the hood of her down jacket, and tied the drawstring tight so only a small opening remained.”
Ahlin’s case is a criminal and moral puzzle about guilt and shades of innocence. A man is many things, but if he is arrested for a heinous act, the world reduces him to caricature. He faces swift assumptions and fabulist headlines, and even the legal system designed to protect his rights succumbs to its own imperfections and inconsistencies. Agendas flash here and there like a circus tilted from is bearings.
Weber is drawn deep into a world where a light in one place throws a shadow in another. Answers are revealed layer by layer, but ambiguity and doubt persist. Can we ever see a man in full? Can we know his heart beyond the convenient composite already sketched for us? Weber is determined to find out whether the truth sets any of us free or just opens the door to another kind of prison.
Malin Persson Giolito
Other Press: 452 pp., $9.99