70 years on from the hanging of Styllou Pantopiou Christofi, a new true-crime novel exposes the facts and fictions of a truly monstrous murder. ALIX NORMAN asks whether death was deserved

On December 15, 1954 Styllou Pantopiou Christofi was the penultimate woman in Britain to be hanged. She was Cypriot.

Unlike Ruth Ellis (the last woman in the UK to die on the gallows), Styllou never admitted her guilt. Until the very end, she continued to profess her innocence. But to this day, questions remain…

“It feels like Styllou’s story has been lost compared to that of Ellis,” says Eleni Kyriacou.

“An uneducated woman, she spoke no English; could neither read nor write Greek. At the age of 53 she was already considered old. She’d grown up in a small village in Cyprus, given birth to multiple children, and was accustomed to back-breaking labour.

“In 1953, she decided to visit her son and his family in London. And at his home, on the night of July 29 the following year, Styllou’s daughter-in-law was brutally beaten, strangled and her corpse set on fire. Thus began a troubled and troubling trial…”

Through her research, Eleni has become an expert on the murder and consequent court case.

feature3 2An award-winning editor and journalist, she has spent most of her career in the media, writing for publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, Grazia and Red. But, in 2020, drawing on her own background as a second-generation Cypriot, she wrote her first book: She Came to Stay.

Four years on, Eleni has just released her second novel, the highly-anticipated The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou.

Again, it draws on her Cypriot roots. But this time, it’s inspired by a true crime: the story of Styllou Pantopiou Christofi.

“I always say ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’, because this was not a book I felt I could write as fact,” says Eleni. “You can’t be faithful to the true story if you don’t have all the facts, and much of the evidence from the time has been lost, removed, or sealed.”

In this gripping story, the main characters have had their names changed; most notably, Eleni has called her main character not Styllou, but Zina. And the Greek interpreter through whose eyes we experience much of the narrative sprang from the author’s imagination; an amalgamation of various translators who were used in the real-life case.

“But though this is a work of fiction, I’ve tried to keep to the facts as much as possible where the crime and evidence are concerned,” Eleni adds.

“Styllou Christofi’s treatment in court and the disparaging language used about her was reported by the press and is reflected in the court scenes. Police statements are largely based on fact, though dramatised. And the memos and petitions in the book are informed by actual documents, as are the majority of letters in and out of prison.”

The truth alone would have made for a rip-roaring read. But in Eleni’s skilled hands, Zina is destined to be a bestseller.

featrue3 the author eleni

the author eleni

Already, the book has been featured on the BBC’s Between the Covers programme, picked as one of the nation’s must-reads. The Times has called it ‘impressive!’ The Guardian has described it as ‘tragic and compelling’. And though we may be 70 years on from the original crime, this is a tale that is sure to resonate deeply – especially for those with a connection to Cyprus!

An age-old saga of the devastating impact of cultural and generational divides, The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou is so much more than a mere murder mystery. A sharp reminder of the lengths to which we might go to to protect our deeply-held values in an ever-changing world, it’s a story of immigrants striving to find their place in a different world. An enthralling exploration of identity, belonging and change.

Arriving in England almost out of the blue, our protagonist, Zina, makes no effort to learn the language or adapt to the culture. She disrupts her son’s marriage, criticises his lifestyle, and condemns her foreign daughter-in-law for her lazy, dirty, godless ways.

Yet she also dotes on her granddaughter, single-handedly takes on the cleaning and cooking, and tries to protect her family from the evil eye.

“Nothing is ever completely black or white,” says Eleni. “And Zina is neither villain nor victim.

“Much like the original Styllou, I’ve set Zina up as a woman who has had a really tough life. She grew up in an abusive family; was married at the age of 14 to a much older man. And all she’s ever known is grinding poverty.

“I’m not making excuses,” she adds. “But I am asking what could have led someone to a point in their lives where something like this happens…”

Whether or not Zina (and Styllou) is ultimately guilty of the monstrous murder is something Eleni leaves open-ended.

“As everything was done through interpreters, Styllou was actually the last person in the Old Bailey to find out she had been sentenced to hang. But long before that, she faced overwhelming prejudice in court: the prosecution referred to ‘a stupid crime by a stupid woman of the peasant sort’. The press ignored her case almost completely. A doctor’s report declaring her clinically insane was never presented as evidence…”

Like Styllou, the fictional Zina professes her innocence to the very steps of the gallows. And Eleni has left it up to the reader to judge whether or not she was guilty.

But one thing the author does disclose is that her protagonist (like the character by whom she was inspired) is not entirely unfamiliar with violence…

At the time the real-life Styllou was convicted, few knew this was not the first time she’d been accused of murder. Years earlier, in Cyprus, she’d been acquitted of the brutal killing of her own mother-in-law…

It’s a detail Eleni has incorporated into her book, further enriching the layers of complexity and intrigue. A fictional narrative this may be. But so masterfully woven that it blurs the lines between fact and fiction, past and present, guilt and innocence.

In The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou we find a true-crime novel that reminds us that, much like the complex history of Cyprus itself, every story has its light. And its shadows.

The Unspeakable Acts of Zina Pavlou is available from all good bookstores, as well as from amazon.co.uk. For more information, visit www.elenikwriter.com or the Instagram account @elenikwriter