Stephen May's new novel is about an aspiring politician who likes poetry and says that when he retires, he'll "run a small bookshop." He's solemn but wants to connect with colleagues, so when one suggests they see the sights in London, where they're attending a conference, he agrees. "An afternoon off," he says. "Fun. I can do fun."

The footloose bibliophile's name? Josef Stalin.

Fictional depictions of history's greatest villains needn't be safe and formulaic. At one end of the spectrum, there's the high comedy of Mel Brooks' "The Producers." At the other are disturbing narratives like Olivier Guez's "The Disappearance of Josef Mengele," an exceptional 2017 novel recently published in the U.S.

May charts a middle course, crafting an oft-sober, occasionally droll portrait of a monster-in-the-making. Impressively, he finds a flicker of humanity in a person who became a mass-murdering despot.

The setting is early 20th century London, where communists from all over are meeting to plot against Russian Czar Nicholas II. Amid heady talk of tactics and fundraising, Stalin is a gangster without portfolio.

In recent years, the 29-year-old protagonist has orchestrated bank robberies for the communist party. But now, in exchange for a shortened jail term, he must spy on fellow communists and share his findings with the Czar's henchmen. If he's exposed, he'll surely be executed by the radicals he's betrayed.

Exploring his protagonist's damaged psyche, May pens flashbacks that do the near-impossible, evoking sympathy for a young Stalin. He's forced to work in a factory when he's 9, burdened with a drunken father who beats the boy "for asking for a book to read." These scenes dovetail with those that focus on fleeting but important friendships Stalin forges in London. Together, they enable May to approach Stalin from multiple angles, illuminating his grim past and his destructive future.

One of his new friends is a factory worker whose stirring oration about workers' rights is undermined by fierce dogmatism; the relationship foreshadows Stalin's subsequent persecution of countless innocent Russians. His other new pal reminds Stalin of himself — a clever youth whose father is an abusive alcoholic; the friendship, based on actual events recounted in the English press, yields a powerful story line, suggesting that even future despots can be kind.

The book's title paraphrases a pitch-black communist quip: Capitalism marches workers to the gallows, but not before making them buy the rope that will hang them. It's in this spirit that May melds coarse jokes — one gives vulgar middle names to revered British writers — and wry observations.

In one funny scene, self-righteous communists sit in a cozy café, planning "to take on the real enemies of the revolution" while "munching gingerbread." May's revolutionaries aren't terribly self-aware — not unlike the real-life zealots trashing 21st century politics.

Kevin Canfield is a regular contributor to the Star Tribune's books coverage.

Sell Us the Rope
By: Stephen May.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 240 pages, $18.