Harsh Amazon reviewer unmasked as author’s wife

  • Mon Apr 19th, 2010 10:29am
  • News

By Robert Barr Associated Press

LONDON — A reviewer signed as “Historian” posted some savage reviews on Amazon’s Web pages, but had a weakness for one writer, celebrated author and Russia expert Orlando Figes.

Historian now has been exposed as Figes’ wife, Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Girton College at Cambridge University.

The revelation has raised eyebrows in Britain’s cozy academic world, where public backbiting is frowned upon.

Figes, a professor of history at Birkbeck College, had denied that he had anything to do with the harsh comments on Amazon about books by Rachel Polonsky, Robert Service and Kate Summerscale.

On Friday, however, Figes’ lawyer, David Price, confirmed that the reviews were posted by Palmer.

“My client’s wife wrote the reviews,” said a statement issued by Price. “My client has only just found out about this, this evening. Both he and his wife are taking steps to make the position clear.”

The unmasking of one of the countless anonymous ranters on the World Wide Web gave scandal-starved British journalists some relief today from volcanic ash and the election campaign.

“It was the professor’s wife, with a keyboard, on Amazon,” said the headline on The Bookseller magazine’s Web site.

The Guardian newspaper said Polonsky had noticed one stinging review among several raves for her book, “Molotov’s Magic Lantern.” Historian called it “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.”

Historian had been similarly unkind to Service, calling his book on Leon Trotsky a “dull read.”

And when Figes lost out to Summerscale for the 30,000-pound ($45,000) Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008, Historian said: “Oh dear, what on earth were the judges thinking?”

Figes’ entry for the Johnson prize, “The Whisperer,” was praised as a “beautiful and necessary” account of the Soviet Union. “I hope he writes forever,” Historian gushed.

“Let’s be clear: what Miss Palmer did was an absolute scandal, one to which none of her victims would ever have stooped,” Philip Hensher wrote in The Independent.

He noted that Polonsky had given a rotten review to one of Figes’ books in 2002, “but did so honorably, under her own name in The Times Literary Supplement.”

Amazon did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Six years ago, some authors were caught anonymously puffing their own books on Amazon. One of those authors, John Rechy, pleaded self-defense.

“That anybody is allowed to come in and anonymously trash a book to me is absurd,” Rechy said at the time. “How to strike back? Just go in and rebut every single one of them.”