Reviewed by John Gilmour in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Factual Crime Writing
The pre-DNA landscape of British justice is littered with notorious cases of wrongful convictions, biased judiciary and questionable police methods. For example, Timothy John Evans was hanged in 1950 for the murder of his wife to which his landlord John Christie later confessed, along with three other murders. Such cases prompted a vigorous public campaign to overturn the conviction of James Hanratty, a petty criminal, who was hanged in 1962 for the murder of John Gregsten. The prosecution relied heavily on some problematic witness evidence of his lover, Valerie Storie.
The only good thing that could be said about the two murder convictions in 1941 and 1959 of this book’s subject, Olof ‘Olle’ Möller, is that they did not lead to his execution but to ten and seven years imprisonment respectively. Yet this fascinating and detailed account – by two practising lawyers – of Möller’s troubled relationship with the Swedish police, the legal system and the mass media reveals that he was entirely innocent, not only of those crimes, but also of a third murder to which he was publicly linked in 1955, an association that contributed to his 1959 conviction.
This is a compelling work of ‘faction’, where the facts of the case and the real personalities involved are expertly blended with descriptive fictional emotions, encounters and events that take the reader through folkhemmet (‘home of the people’) Sweden, from grubby Stockholm to beautiful Närke.
The narrative also presents a nostalgic panorama of Swedish beredskap (‘preparedness’) during WW2 and of the post-war period of remarkable social and economic change. The hapless Möller is oblivious to many of the changes in Sweden, although the reader is left in no doubt that, in his case, pre-1945 justice was heavily driven by upper-class contempt for the common man. During the 1940-41 trial, the illegitimate Möller is humiliated by the judge who seeks to portray him as an unreliable character: ‘Why have you provided incorrect information about your birth?’ As any illegitimate person of that period would attest, the answer is obvious – to avoid the shame.
Möller did himself no good whatsoever. He was an aspiring athlete and simple soul but his brains seem often to be located in his trousers. In attempting to distance himself from the first murder, he blunders into fatal attempts to create false alibis while denying any involvement – as he also denied the existence of children that he had fathered. Yet, the unattractive aspects of his flawed character are more than exceeded by those of ambitious prosecutors, venal policemen, self-regarding jurists and double-dealing journalists who turned Möller’s personal tragedy into a vehicle for their own advancement.
Ebervall and Samuelson present a powerful case for all the checks and balances that should exist in the legal system to prevent dupes with weaknesses from being sacrificed to satisfy public and political demands for a conviction, even at the expense of truth and justice. In recent decades in Britain, Colin Stagg and Barry George were cleared despite huge public and media pressure to hold them responsible for abhorrent crimes. The inescapable conclusion is that in Britain and Sweden, the public would prefer a wrongful conviction to no conviction.
When this occurs, not only is a victim denied justice, but a perpetrator goes free, possibly to murder again. In the concluding pages, the authors trace the untidy reality of the consequences: evidence that is no longer verifiable, elderly perpetrators who cannot be brought to justice and shocking malpractice by those in authority. The 2012 Hillsborough enquiry revealed the level of official misconduct that can occur in Britain. Mördaren i Folkhemmet shows how in Sweden thirty years earlier a lethal combination of circumstantial evidence, browbeaten witnesses, concealment of inconvenient facts, public identification of the suspect, massive media coverage, and an accused whose personality traits were unhelpful, led directly to the conviction of an innocent man. The same could also have been said in the case of James Hanratty but in defence of the justice system, we need also to remind ourselves that only advances in DNA testing revealed in 2002 that the many eminent people who were convinced of Hanratty’s innocence were wrong.
This gripping and absorbing account is real Scandinavian crime and deserves the widest possible readership by those who not only take an interest in crime and justice but also enjoy excellent writing and a compelling narrative.