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Anne Perry: Life after the Parker-Hulme murder

Successful crime novelist Anne Perry can never escape the shadow of Juliet Hulme. In an interview with Diana Wichtel she talks about life after serving a jail term for murder.

You find yourself bristling as you are drawn into the orbit of Planet Anne Perry. It’s a world where the crime writer with a unique past as a “gym tunic murderess” is surrounded by a fiercely protective circle of friends and family who work with her and for her. Where people have new names, words have bewildering layers of meaning and everything feels a few degrees out of kilter. Overtures must be made, samples of work sent, questions anxiously submitted. It’s like a surreal audition: a lot of song and dance, with a bit of soft-shoe shuffle to avoid causing alarm. It feels controlling. It also feels like a small, unnerving glimpse into what it must be like to be Anne Perry: her words scrutinised for subtext; her demeanour judged; her soul constantly weighed. But the only way to meet her, particularly if you are a journalist, particularly from New Zealand, is to try to enter her world for a while. It’s a fascinating place to visit. It would take a tough customer to live there.

A new identity

Even the opening pleasantries are ambiguous. “Hello, is this Anne Perry?” I say. “It is indeed,” she agrees brightly. It is and it isn’t. The agreeable lady on the end of the phone is, indeed, the highly successful author of a prodigious number of well-regarded Victorian murder mysteries. She’s also, we’ve known since 1994, when the hype around Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures saw her cover blown, Juliet Hulme. In 1954, the pretty, intelligent 15-year-old she was then helped her best friend, Pauline Parker, batter Pauline’s mother, Honorah Rieper, to death with a broken brick in a lisle stocking. Hulme did five years in Mt Eden Prison, then departed for England and reunited with her always-elsewhere parents. She took the surname of her stepfather and worked jobs from nanny to stewardess.

Eventually, she found a measure of fame and fortune as the person now speaking with charmingly old-school precision down the line from her converted barn in Portmahomack, Scotland. Yet Juliet Hulme keeps materialising, like an obliquely acknowledged hologram, vanishing before you can get a fix on her. It does your head in. It’s hard to imagine what it does to hers. “When the film came out, that was indescribably awful,” she tells me. “But I choose to look forward rather than to look back and to make the best of it. Not the film. I don’t want anything to do with it. Because that was a work of fiction.” When she says, “I would rather have kept my privacy, I think”, you understand her hesitation. “In a sense I have nothing to hide any more. The worst has happened, so to speak. You don’t think, ‘I’m going to get to know this person and they’re going to like me and then they are going to find out this and it’s all going to fall into bits.’”

Now she’s being further outed in a biography, The Search for Anne Perry, by New Zealand academic and biographer Joanne Drayton. “Now I think I don’t have to explain myself,” Perry says optimistically. “They probably know more about me than I do.” Of course, the explaining never ends. There’s a now-familiar series of mantras, what Dana Linkiewicz, maker of the sad, haunted Perry documentary Interiors, has described as the “sentences she needs to cling onto to manage her life”. Perry tackles her past with a hopefulness that carries an undertow of anguish. “I’ve depended on the kindness of strangers,” she says, unafraid of invoking Tennessee Williams’s tragic, deluded Blanche DuBois, “and I’ve very seldom ever been let down.” Well, when things went haywire she was only a child. “Yes, I think more people understand now that at that age your brain isn’t really in gear … Added to which I’d been out of circulation for a couple of years and that does make a difference to how you see things.”

Childhood illnesses

She was often ill as a child; when she was 14 she spent months in a sanatorium. “You see, she was the one person who wrote to me every day,” Perry says suddenly. She’s referring to Pauline Parker, who became Hilary Nathan, and is living a reclusive life, also in Scotland. “I wasn’t allowed visitors of any sort but she wrote to me every day and I felt I owed her for that friendship.”

In Drayton’s account, Juliet was allowed some visitors at the sanatorium. Her parents took off for a lecture tour in the UK. That must have been hard. “Oh, I guess so,” she sighs. She had been sent away for her health before, once being packed off to strangers in the Bahamas. There were two boys in the family. “The younger one hated my guts and beat the crap out of me,” she told Drayton. Does she feel the adults in her life let her down? “Actually, I never thought of that,” she says. “The one thing I resented, it was just the law, was that at that age you’re not allowed to speak yourself. They can say anything about you, no matter how absolutely absurd it is and you cannot say anything at all.”

Actually, it was decided the deluded superciliousness of the girls at the time wouldn’t have helped their case. What I think some people haven’t appreciated is that the whole crisis came about within 24 hours,” she says, as the events leading up to the murder come reeling out. “Within 24 hours I learnt that my parents’ marriage was dissolving, my father lost his job and they were leaving the country and a girl to whom I felt I owed a great deal of debt hit the buffers as well and the decision had to be made within hours. “But that was nobody’s fault. It just happened. I never blamed anybody else for that. There was nobody to turn to, because they were drowning as well.” She has said she believed Parker would kill herself if they were separated, that it was one life or the other.

“So the letters were a lifeline and I felt when she needed a lifeline I owed her. And you can get a very exaggerated sense of who you owe – whom you owe, should I say – when you’re that age.” Even edging close to the abyss, Perry never loosens her firm grip on her syntax. At the time of the trial, there was talk of lesbianism, something Perry has always denied. According to the prosecution, the accused were bad: “two highly intelligent but dirty minded girls”. According to the defence, with its failed argument of folie à deux, they were mad. There were the still-shocking entries from Pauline Parker’s diaries: “… we decided to use a rock in a stocking rather than a sandbag. We discussed the moider fully. I feel very keyed up as if I was planning a Surprise party … So next time I write in this diary Mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing.”

If Perry lacks an adequate vocabulary to talk about this, it’s unsurprising. She never discussed the murder with her parents. “No. Or anybody else.” Those around her, by all accounts, tiptoe around “the thing that happened”. She goes there only in these awkward public recitals. I wonder if this protective, embarrassed silence around her has isolated her. “Sometimes you’d like to have been able to speak about it, but it upsets other people and they don’t want to know,” she says bleakly. “So you shut up.”

Coming out of the shadows

When she talks about her time in prison, her tone shifts are enough to cause whiplash. It must have been … hard. “I suppose so, but I learnt a lot. If you can survive that, you can probably survive a lot of things,” she says breezily. Abruptly, we’re in darker territory: “Somebody recently asked me the question ‘Did that affect you?’ If you have never been a prisoner in a prison the night before they hang somebody next morning, you might ask the question. If you had, you wouldn’t,” she says. “You better believe it does. We did have one young woman who died in solitary confinement, and that was worse. I never forget her or her name or her face.” A beat and she’s buoyant again. “I mean, if you look at my life and situation now … You’ve probably seen photographs of me?” I have. “I would say it hasn’t done me any harm,” she says dryly. But how can that be? “Oh, grace of God. I don’t mean that He thinks I’m special. I just mean that I’m grateful.”

Well, she remains a handsome woman. “I’m too vain to get fat if I can help it,” she says. Perry is likeable, elusive, bracing company. Sometimes she stops you in your tracks. Her choice of words, such as when she’s talking about the failings of the British media – “Attack somebody your own weight who has a chance of attacking you back and I say, right, may the best man win. But when you attack somebody who is vulnerable, frightened and cannot possibly attack you back …” – can be startling. But there’s a sense that, at 73, she’s ready to come out of the shadows. Have some time in the sun. Perry hasn’t spoken to the press from New Zealand in nearly 60 years and here we are chatting about everything from Oscar Wilde to string theory.

“You haven’t asked me about my education in New Zealand,” she prompts. It seems important to her to say her brief time at Christchurch Girls’ High was good. “Miss Milne was so gifted,” she says, of her maths teacher. “It was as if she walked into the room and turned all the lights on.” Perry seems to wants to show she has some happy memories of New Zealand. And along with faith and writing, mathematics still provides her with hope of escape from the predicament of her past. There’s a moment when Perry becomes suddenly elated, relating her discovery that the internal angles of a triangle don’t have to add up to 180 degrees. “I thought ‘Wow!’ It’s so liberating because I thought that had to be; that there was no conceivable place where it wouldn’t be. I thought suddenly, well, maybe all sorts of other things aren’t what you think they have to be.”

Perry has fronted up in a variety of interviews over the years. There’s a television segment in the back of a car with crime writer Ian Rankin. She fixes him with a gaze of unwavering brio that seems to utterly unnerve him. “When I was 15, I committed a crime as an accessory; I was involved … I helped someone kill another person,” she tells him. “Was the mother awake? Asleep?”, quavers Rankin. “Oh, she was awake!” says Perry. Oh dear. “I thought it wasn’t too bad at the time,” she tells me of the interview, “but I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Woo, that was a bit rough, wasn’t it?’ I guess it was worse than I thought.”

The decision to be involved in a biography can’t have been easy. “I was informed that [Drayton] was doing it,” she says, “and I had the choice either to co-operate or not. It’s going to happen anyway.” Perry’s agent, Meg Davis, was for it. “She said, ‘We won’t get a better chance to maybe do a definitive one and stop the other people.’ Because people rise up and do it every so often.” Of Drayton: “I feel that this is the fairest shot I’ll ever get. I’ve tried to be honest. I thought she was cutting me as good a deal as was possible consistent with the facts.” The search for Anne Perry. So, has she finally been found? “Well, honestly, would I know?” she says a little impatiently. She hasn’t read the book. “I’m not sure that I want to. It’s a bit like getting up first thing in the morning and looking at yourself in a magnifying mirror, which is not always a pleasant experience,” she says, with a wintry laugh. “You see more of yourself than perhaps you wish to.”

The book builds a complex picture of the world of past crime, public success, work and private pain Perry inhabits. Drayton’s compassion occasionally gets the better of her. “She felt she could not hold Anne responsible for the crazy, unhinged act of a teenager; she knew exactly how twisted and strange that time could be,” she writes, of Perry’s devoted friend, Meg MacDonald. “‘There but for the grace of God go I.’” Well, probably not. But Drayton’s empathy made the scrutiny bearable. “Yes, it was enjoyable. It’s always difficult digging into the past, especially when it’s filled with memories of those you love but who are not alive any more.” She means her late parents, probably the only herself. Drayton’s book is full of small, telling revelations. On the appeal of the Mormon Church: “[It] also made another miraculous pledge: it had guaranteed the entry into the Kingdom of Heaven of her victim.” She notes, of Kate Winslet, who starred in Heavenly Creatures, that Perry was “ultimately even a little flattered by Jackson’s casting of her”.

The emphasis on Perry’s fiction may frustrate those who want the murder story straight. But the long way round is often the only route to understanding the inexplicable. I find myself urging Perry to read it. “I’ve been told that by other people as well, people who know me and are very much on my side,” she says. “I may in time wish to. Just at the moment … Not yet.”

Anne Perry's writing

There’s a character, Justine, in Perry’s Ashworth Hall, who has murdered her husband to save her son. “There’s no point in saying sorry over and over again,” says Justine. “I shall have to prove to you I am what I am trying to be.” Perry’s books explore identity, guilt, remorse. Her amnesiac investigator, William Monk, is undergoing the painful process of discovering who he is and whether he himself is a murderer. “… there was still a black horror which held most of it from him, a dread of learning the unbearable”. Perry is dismissive of the echoes. “Now, it’s possible for people to get cute and think that I’m reflecting things in my own life when I’m not,” she says, a little sharply. “… I’ve never had amnesia in my life. I have had one or two things that I remember less well because I believe shock does that to your memory.”

Great Aunt Vespasia, from Perry’s Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series, declares that people kill “because they cared about something so fiercely they lost all sense of reason and proportion. For a time their need eclipsed everyone else’s, even drowned out their own sense of self-preservation.” It does seem she’s playing out personal issues in her work. “Ahhh, not consciously,” she says. “I’m not evading the question.”

Her characters often seek redemption. Can she forgive herself? “Yes, of course you can forgive yourself. You’ve got to. I mean, crippling yourself doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose,” she says. “Is there anybody who hasn’t made mistakes thinking it was the right thing to do at the time? And realising afterwards that it certainly wasn’t? No. Exactly.” There are sins of omission, too, she says. “If you’ve never done anything wrong maybe you’ve never done anything right, either.”

Some have seen a lack of remorse in Perry’s brisk public demeanour. She says she has made peace with her crime. “Oh, a long time ago, yes. Admit that you’re wrong and say I’m sorry, and then move on from there. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how sorry you are for something, I don’t think you help anybody by spending the rest of your life moaning about it. I think the only way you can possibly achieve anything is from then on to be the best person you know how.” And you must forgive, she says. “When you’ve made some howling mistakes, no matter what, then as you would like to be forgiven you flaming well get on with forgiving others.” It sounds a little like a sermon; or perhaps as close as she comes to a plea for understanding. Hollywood plans

As for the future, “I’m terrified that I’m going to get all the things that I want too late to care about them,” she says. Such as? “Oh, I want to be more actively involved in filming and stuff. I want to work with people, not always by myself.” There are television options on both her Monk and Pitt series. Hollywood, perhaps, beckons. You can’t help but recall that, at the Parker-Hulme trial, Dr Medlicott, principal psychiatric consultant for the defence, noted the girls’ deluded plans for fame in the US. “They would go to Hollywood,= choose their actors and supervise the filming of their novels.” It does your head in.

In the meantime, Perry will be off to some regular book-tour venues in Canada for speaking engagements generated by the release of the biography. “I’m less keen to talk about it there because I consider them to be my friends and I’m not quite sure I want to go into that deep stuff about me,” she says a little nervously. But she has her rules for any awkward moments on the road. “Don’t lose your temper. It doesn’t do.” And “Self-pity is never attractive, even if you’re ripped apart and totally vivisected. Those are tactics for self-preservation.” As she outlines her hectic plans, it appears she is working with increased urgency.

“Exactly. You have your finger right on the button. Everything to play for,” she says resolutely. “Keep a good thought for me that some of these Hollywood things turn up.” It’s midnight my end and Perry has her endless work to do: a new novel set between the wars; a sequel to one of her fantasies. And the pressing daily business of proving that she truly is what she wants to be. So, is she glad in the end that she didn’t keep her secret? “Possibly. I thought I was doing fine but maybe I’ll do better this way.” She has hopes for this new book. “I would love it to affect people to think, ‘My goodness, if she can start from that point and succeed and overcome it and make other people treat her kindly, then so can I,’” she says. “The best thing I can hope for is that many other people will think, okay, got off to a bad beginning. That doesn’t mean I’m finished.”

The biographer

The Kiwi who finally won Anne Perry over.

“The woman is repentant. I swear to God. I’ll get down on the floor if you want me to, get the Bible out,” says Joanne Drayton, when we meet after my interview with Perry. “And I don’t think she has forgiven herself.” Drayton, who also wrote an excellent biography of Ngaio Marsh, doesn’t need to prostrate herself in the Auckland Art Gallery cafe to make her case. She does it with insight and compassion in a book that took considerable patience. “I actually played a waiting game for her to feel safe enough with me to say things and she did. I did push it occasionally but not hard.”

On her visits to interview Perry, Drayton met the locals. “The village lawyer was talking about all the things [Perry] did before her reputation came out. She would go quietly up to people and say, ‘I’ve heard that so and so is on bad times’.” She’d help out where she could. Drayton also talked to women who had been to school with Parker and Hulme, and found unexpected sympathy. “Man, one of them stood her ground like a fox terrier – she’s quite a significant painter – and she said, ‘I will not talk to you unless you tell me that this is not going to be another tirade of abuse.’ She said, ‘They’ve had enough punishment. This needs to be something better than that.’” Perry’s camp gave Drayton free rein. “I didn’t realise how shocking it would be. It’s still shocking.”

In his 2011 book on the Parker-Hulme case, So Brilliantly Clever, Peter Graham suggests that Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme may have both had bipolar disorder. Drayton doesn’t agree. “Honestly, no. I don’t know about Pauline but I doubt it, too.” She has met people in the Catholic Church who had a lot to do with Pauline. “She regretted it big time.” Drayton has never spoken to Hilary Nathan. “Not to her directly. Would I want to? Yes, I certainly would.” We speak again after Drayton returns from the UK and another visit with Perry.

“There were still reservations about taking such a big step, but I felt there was a genuine hope in her that her story might be handled justly. I think my biography has helped her believe that she can be fairly treated, and it has given her confidenceto see merit in talking to New Zealand,” reports Drayton. And, no, Perry still hasn’t read the book. But the process has been positive. “Perhaps some indefinable weight lifted for her … some intangible sense of trust and peace restored.”