A True Crime Springboard: Eleni Kyriacou’s The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou


Fact: December 1954, Holloway Prison: Styllou Christofi, a Cypriot grandmother, is hanged for the murder of her German daughter-in-law, Hella.

Fiction: December 1954, Holloway Prison: Zina Pavlou, a Cypriot grandmother, is hanged for the murder of her German daughter-in-law, Hedy.

Eleni Kyriacou first heard about Styllou Christofi in 2017 when she was at an exhibition and read an extract from the executioner Albert Pierrepoint’s memoir. Although most people have heard of Ruth Ellis, who was hanged in London in July 1955, only a few months after Christofi, very few people have heard of Christofi because, suggests Albert Pierrepoint, she was “middle-aged, unattractive and foreign”. Eleni was intrigued by the story, not only because she herself is Cypriot but also because she “discovered that the accused spoke no English and read and wrote no Greek.”

Eleni’s interest was piqued, and she passionately believed that this is a story that “needs to be told! The real case is forgotten,” she says, “and I wanted to change that. The two women at the heart of the actual case – the accused and the victim – have been lost to history.” Eleni decided, however, not to “attempt a factual account – there are too many gaps in the story, and the sense of responsibility in making sure it was correct would be too much. With a fictional account, I could change names and simply use the true crime as a springboard for my imagination.” The result is The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou (Aries, 2023).

Despite the decision not to keep just to the facts of the story, Eleni wanted to get the details of the crime, the arrest and the court proceedings as accurate as possible. As she explains, “It’s such a remarkable and dramatic story, I saw no reason to change these basic elements (although of course I’ve fictionalised them). It was important to me to reflect life in prison accurately, too. I did a lot of research and drew on diaries from women who were in Holloway Prison, watched films, read letters that the accused had translated for her in and out of prison, and looked at newspaper reports and police statements. These were all from a variety of archives and libraries.”

Eleni admits that writing in the past tense is her preferred style, but in this book she brings a sense of reality to the fiction by writing the court scenes in the present tense. Eleni explains that she did this “to make them more immediate and dramatic, and give the reader a sense of being close to the action, living through every moment with Zina and Eva. Time slows down with present tense, and that’s the affect I wanted to achieve.”

Eleni gave herself permission to change the story as much as she wanted because “some of the original detail has been lost, and some is redacted and not available to the public; these are also good reasons not to follow the factual story rigorously.” Eleni has changed all the characters’ names and says they bear no resemblance to the real people. “There is much we don’t know about the true story – like what really happened to the accused in her early life. All of that is imagined, as are the scenes set in a fictional village in Cyprus.” As Eleni says, the story is not a “factual, journalistic account,” and so she did not need permission from any living relatives, but she has informed Styllou’s grandson and will be sending him a copy of the book.

All communication between Christofi and everyone else involved in the case was “conducted through her translators. What a responsibility – and what power, too.” Eleni researched what life would have been like for a translator at the time and what the job entailed, and found that “It was far less regimented than it is now, and anyone who spoke another language could earn a few shillings translating for the police. Sometimes these translators were petty criminals themselves.” One of the biggest deviations from the known facts is that Eleni includes a single female translator, Eva, who supports Zina from the start of her ordeal to the very end, rather than the “three male interpreters, who chopped and changed throughout her case.”  Although Eva is 100% fiction, her predicament as an immigrant here is “informed by what I know, and my own experience of being the child of immigrants – having one foot in each world, dealing with much of life’s admin for parents, be it phoning the council to discuss better housing, to visiting the doctor’s office to translate.”

As a result of her research, Eleni believes that Styllou Christofi “suffered a great miscarriage of justice: the doctors at Holloway prison said she was insane, and yet she was still tried before a jury,” found guilty, and paid the ultimate price. Eleni does not suggest that Styllou was innocent, but in telling her story through the character of Zina, she explores the possible reasons as to why a middle-aged, Cypriot grandmother murders her daughter-in-law in such a horrific manner. Eleni maintains that “everyone has a backstory, that however ‘evil’ or ‘monstrous’ someone appears, we cannot possibly know everything that has happened to them to get them to this point. That doesn’t excuse criminal behaviour, but I do believe that often there’s something that has tipped that person over the edge, rather than it simply being that they’re pure ‘evil’. I wanted readers to struggle with who they were rooting for in this book. Life’s not cut and dried; novels should reflect that.”

According to the thesaurus, the word “unspeakable” means “monstrous”, which is true of the crime itself, but it also means “beyond words,” “incommunicable” and “inexpressible,” which describes Christofi’s inability to speak for herself, to explain her reasons, her justification, her defence. Although fictionalising a true crime that happened seventy years ago, Eleni believes that The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou will resonate with today’s readers because its themes of “immigration, female friendship, racism, misogyny, justice, mental health and family love and betrayal are all at the heart of this story,” which are as relevant today as they were all those years ago.

About the contributor: Marilyn Pemberton has a passion for fairy tales that subvert and challenge social mores. Victorian fairy-tale writer Mary De Morgan was the subject first of a biography, then a fictionalised life in The Jewel Garden. Her historical trilogy, Grandmother’s Footsteps, will be complemented by a fourth book, A Bearer of Tales, due to be published later in 2024.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 107 (February 2024)

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