Give My Regards to Uncle Stalin by Fiona Veitch Smith
A recent review of the second book in my Poppy Denby Investigates series, The Kill Fee, has made me laugh. The reader’s main gripe was that in her opinion my characterisation of communists was too ‘politically correct’, adding: ‘Joseph Stalin and Vladimir Lenin are portrayed as kindly uncles in the corner.’ She then went on to ask if the author was aware of the atrocities of Stalinism. And just in case I didn’t she catalogued (over six paragraphs) the mass murders and other deplorable acts of Stalin and his cronies. The thing is, Stalin doesn’t even appear in the book!
The Kill Fee is set in two time frames: October 1917, Russia, and October 1920, London. Poppy Denby, a journalist for the Daily Globe, is at the Crystal Palace when a priceless Faberge Egg, owned by the refugee Romanovs, is stolen. The investigation takes a dark turn when someone connected with the egg is murdered. The race is on to find the egg before the killer strikes again…
But where do the ‘dear old uncles’ come in and why was the reader so offended? Well, while Lenin doesn’t actually appear he is part of the back story of one of the characters. A White Russian actress has got it into her head that Lenin was once in love with her. He wasn’t, but she believes it to be true. A photograph of Lenin and the actress – taken in 1912– is part of Poppy’s investigation. Lenin is also mentioned sympathetically by guests at a dinner party including Poppy’s suffragette Aunt Dot and the famous socialist George Bernard Shaw. They refer to Emmeline Pankhurst meeting with Lenin a few years earlier. This actually happened. Emmeline Pankhurst – the leader of the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union – did travel to Moscow in June 1917. She was interested to see how women’s rights were being advanced by the Bolsheviks. Her view of communism, however, soured and later in the 1920s she became a vocal opponent. (Her daughter, Sylvia, was a founding member of the British Communist Party.)
At the turn of the 1920s people on the left were looking with interest at Russia. They saw the overthrow of a totalitarian regime as a positive, in line with their views of the expansion of democracy to the working classes. The horrors of Stalinism had not yet taken place. So I have characters sympathetic to communism. But I also give hints of the brutality that is to come. The book opens with a horrific mass murder in Moscow at the hands of Bolsheviks and later the murder of the Tsar and his family. One of the ‘baddies’ in the book is an associate of Stalin (he gets mentioned, once) and the man’s hard-line beliefs are not shown in a positive light. In contrast, one of the other Red Russian characters is shown as a good man with noble ideals, who truly believes Bolshevism will bring only good to the world.
I present a cross-section of characters representing different views of socialism and communism, true to the time they live in. To have characters who speak about the evils of communism and the horrors of what is to come would not have been historically authentic. And yet, this reader didn’t like it. She wanted me to show how evil it all was – without compromise. I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that.
It got me thinking about how we all read (and write) books through the lens of our own experience and values. In Narratology – which studies how narratives are constructed and interpreted by readers/viewers – it is understood that people can both under-read and over-read a text. Under-reading is when we selectively read or engage with the bits of a story we like or agree with and avoid or not fully absorb the bits we don’t. This might be an issue of style – ‘I find long descriptions boring and will skip them’; or morality – ‘I don’t like reading sex scenes’; or emotional – ‘I don’t like reading about violence towards animals’ (that’s me!); or, in the case of this reader, a political viewpoint – ‘I don’t like stories that don’t support my political views’. Over-reading, on the other hand, is when we put things into the story that weren’t there in the first place. In this case it is the presence of Stalin and my alleged support for his behaviour.
I heard Ian Rankin recently say he originally intended the first Rebus novel to be a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde. But none of his readers or critics seemed to get that (under-reading). On the other end of the spectrum I sincerely doubt Enid Blyton intended Big Ears in the Noddy books to be characterised as a paedophile (over-reading). Lenses. We all read through them. What, I wonder, are yours?
Fiona Veitch Smith is the author of the Poppy Denby Investigates series. Book 1, The Jazz Files, was shortlisted for the CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger 2016. Book 2, The Kill Fee, was a finalist in the Forword Book Review mystery of the year, 2017, and book 3, The Death Beat will be released on 20 October.
Or visit Fiona’s profile here.