Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson’s eerie film about the Parker-Hulme murder (starring Kate Winslet) is not easily forgotten. Set in 1954 in Christchurch, New Zealand, it tells the bizarre true story of two teenage best friends, Pauline Parker (aged 15) and Juliet Hulme (16), who planned and carried out the brutal, cold-blooded murder of Pauline’s mother by bashing her to death with a brick. Due to the intense nature of their friendship, which was perceived to be destructive and dangerous, the girls were to be separated. Hulme’s family were to move to South Africa, and this motivated Pauline to commit matricide: she wanted to go to South Africa too. Tried and found guilty, the girls escaped the death penalty as they were under 18, and instead served five years in New Zealand prisons.
After being released, both women invented new lives for themselves. Pauline became a devout Roman Catholic, went to live in England as Hilary Nathan, and eventually settled in a small, rural village in Scotland, teaching at a children’s riding school and living reclusively. She has never given an interview.
Juliet Hulme also took on another name – Anne – and the surname of her new stepfather – Perry – also eventually settling in Scotland. She became a devout Mormon and a highly prolific, extremely successful writer. Known mostly for her two bestselling Victorian-era crime series, respectively featuring police inspector Thomas Pitt and private investigator William Monk, she has written over 60 books across genres including crime (some of which have been optioned for film), fantasy, historical and young adult. She has sold 26 million books, has been translated into many languages, and apparently her titles have never been out of print.
The Prelude to The Search for Anne Perry opens in July 1994 with the rumour being broken to Perry’s publishers (could it be true?) that she was in fact teenage murderess Juliet Hulme. Chapter One begins in 1972 when Perry, aged 34, has moved from the US to England ‘to bury herself’. This early part of the book concentrates on her budding career as a writer which, due to many rejections, doesn’t take off for a good five years. Eventually it is her stepfather who suggests she write a murder mystery. ‘Anne had honed her skills on her failures and she had found her genre,’ writes Drayton. By the time she was 46, Perry was publishing a book a year and had moved to a village in the Scottish Highlands where, aged 74, she still lives today, and is still being published.
Drayton is a New Zealand academic who has written, among others, an acclaimed biography of New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh. The Search for Anne Perry is extensively researched, contains detailed endnotes and an impressive bibliography and has been compiled from many sources, including Pauline Parker’s diaries, archives, interviews with Perry’s friends, relatives and colleagues and face-to-face interviews with Anne Perry herself.
Drayton recorded around 50 hours of conversations with Perry during several days with her in Scotland. She liked her a lot and it seems that, far from maintaining an objective distance from her subject, the book is almost an apologia, which if not exonerating the crime, at least finds justification for it, portraying the girls as being so naïve and removed from reality that they had neither a concept of consequence nor an understanding of mortality, somehow discounting the fact that the murder was premeditated and that Pauline’s diary was a ‘record of intent’. I struggled to understand her stance.
There are two major strands in the book – the story of Perry’s writing and the story of the murder, its aftermath and the impact of the revelation of Perry’s identity. Although these strands are almost impossible not to link, as a reader, I found the way they are interwoven structurally problematic and disjointed. The narrative is neither linear nor chronological, and constantly dips into and out of the past. I found this increasingly annoying and eventually jarring, particularly when the story of the murder begins to unfold quite a way into the book. I actually found myself flipping forward so that I could maintain the momentum of the story of the murder, trial and imprisonment, which is well told and extremely compelling, and probably of primary interest to readers.
This is very much a book about writing, specifically about the history and preoccupations of Perry’s writing (she always wanted to be a writer and writing was an integral part of her teenage friendship, as the girls built a fantasy world and wrote stories and novels). Her first crime series featured a woman detective in a Victorian setting, and she embraced large issues and themes in all her books – including feminism, class divisions, incest, rape, redemption, forgiveness, elements of philosophy and theology.
By analysing her novels in great detail, Drayton attempts to find connections and links between Perry’s fiction and her real life and to get to know the ‘real Anne Perry’ through her work. There are pages and pages devoted to intricate plot analyses of countless novels. I skimmed through many of these sections – partly because I may want to read the novels some day and don’t want to encounter spoilers, and partly because the tone is very academic and reads like a thesis; I simply felt disconnected from the text and lost interest. Maybe for those familiar with Perry’s novels these sections will resonate more.
Judging by the popularity of her books in the public library I worked in, Perry has a huge following. She is an intriguing character and I assume her readers would be interested in finding out more about her and her writing process through this biography. As for finding the ‘real’ Anne Perry?
In doing some research around the book, I found this clip of Ian Rankin interviewing Anne Perry – in a car. I was fascinated. As they say, a picture paints …
Joanne Drayton The Search for Anne Perry: The Hidden Life of a Bestselling Crime Writer, HarperCollins, 2012, PB, 250pp, $32.00
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