The true crime behind The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou

Dec 13, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Bloomsbury (by Eleni Kyriacou).

The true crime that inspired my novel, The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou, had me hooked from the start. In 1954, Styllou Christofi, a 53-year-old Cypriot grandmother, came to England to visit her son, Stavros; his German wife, Hella; and their three children. A year later, she was sitting in a cell accused of brutally murdering her daughter-in-law. Hella had been beaten, strangled and set alight.

Styllou was a small woman, from a dirt-poor rural background, who spoke no English and was illiterate in Greek, too. The newspaper reports say she was bewildered and needed the services of translators throughout her case. Despite overwhelming evidence against her, she insisted she was innocent. The court, the press and the public, however, didn’t agree. They took an intense disliking to her, and she was disparaged in court, with the prosecution calling it a ‘stupid crime’, committed by a ‘stupid woman of the peasant type’.

Christofi was the penultimate woman to be hanged in Britain, and yet this is a little-known case. Seven months later, it was a very different story when crowds took to the streets in protest as Ruth Ellis was sentenced to hang, and 50,000 members of the public petitioned the Home Office asking for clemency.

After much research, looking at police statements, Christofi’s translated letters in and out of prison and medical documents, there were two aspects of this crime that particularly intrigued me. The first was the total reliance on police interpreters who, unlike now, were completely unregulated, paid on an hourly, casual basis and swapped around according to who was available. These were jobs people did on the side because they happened to speak another language, rather than careers. In Christofi’s case, one of her interpreters was a petty criminal himself. And the second was the doubt surrounding her sanity. The Chief Medical Officer at Holloway Prison, who observed her during her imprisonment, stated she was insane and suffering from paranoid delusions. And yet Christofi would not allow her defence to use this, saying: ‘I may be poor, and illiterate but I’m not mad.’ Presumably, the stigma she attached to such a label (especially coming from an isolated, rural community) means she would never have contemplated agreeing to such a thing – despite the fact she was up for murder.

I decided to write The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou, using the true crime as a springboard for my fictionalised account, with these two central themes at its heart. In the novel, I gave Zina (the accused) just one female interpreter – a younger woman, called Eva, who is grieving for a lost baby whilst watching her own marriage crumble. As Eva is increasingly drawn to Zina and the dark secrets of her past and present, she wonders if it’s possible that this unassuming, unworldly woman could really have committed such unspeakable acts?

The trial is interspersed with scenes from Zina’s son’s house, which show the relationship between Zina and Hedy disintegrating as we count down to the night of the murder. I’ve used many original documents in the writing of The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou, and there’s an author’s note at the end that explains what’s fact and what’s fiction. I think a strand of truth in a novel gives it a chilling authenticity that nothing else can, and hopefully I’ve achieved that here.

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