The Search for Anne Perry
So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World
Awa Press, $42.00,
On 22 June 1954, in Victoria Park, Christchurch, 16-year-old Pauline Parker with the help of her 15-year-old friend Juliet Hulme battered her mother to death with a brick in a stocking. Despite some strong contenders, this probably remains New Zealand’s most famous murder and a source of continuing horrified fascination, the subject of novels, plays, films and documentaries. Joanne Drayton’s The Search for Anne Perry and Peter Graham’s So Brilliantly Clever are two recent additions to this seemingly ever-expanding list.
Very different in intention, treatment and tone, these books might be thought of as both complementary and sharply contrasting. Drayton’s is a biography of Anne Perry, the name Juliet Hulme assumed after her release from prison and under which over the last 35 years she has published around 60 very successful historical murder mysteries. Graham’s is mostly a detailed account of the murder and the trial though later chapters offer interesting psychological profiling of the girls, in addition to chronicling briefly their post-trial lives and those of others directly involved in the case.
The most distinctive aspect of Drayton’s biography is its structure. We begin with a novelistic prelude, set in 1994, in which New Zealand journalist Lin Ferguson rings Perry‘s flabbergasted agent, Meg Davis, to break the news that her client is really Hulme. The opening chapter then goes back to 20-something Perry’s/Hulme’s return to England in 1972, and begins to relate the story of Anne as apprentice writer. For the remaining chapters (two to nine), Drayton employs a kind of double-plotting or parallel narrative (not unlike Maurice Gee’s Plumb): the first part of each chapter advances Perry’s literary success story (apparently 20 million copies of her books had been sold by 2006) while the second part accumulatively fills in the backstory so that by chapter nine present and past finally meet. A short postscript describes two visits Drayton spent interviewing Perry.
This parallel narrative certainly has its rewards. It gets away from a simple, and simplifying, chronological trajectory and has the effect of engaging readers with both stories, the story they think they more or less know (Hulme’s story) and the story they don’t (Perry’s). In this the narrative mimics an act of detection as the story of the present is more and more informed and deepened by the emerging story of the past, adding up to a kind of biographical redemption. In principle, at least. In fact, I found that Hulme’s story tended to become overlaid, even buried, under Perry’s (not to mention under the numerous summaries of Perry’s plots), and I wondered what the effect would have been, had the contents of each chapter been reversed and the switch been from past to present rather than the other way round. The result would certainly have been less flattering to Perry. Which at some level is perhaps the point.
“Discretion”, as the great biographer Lytton Strachey wittily and wisely pointed out a hundred years ago, “is not the better part of biography.” And too much sympathy for one’s subject tends to lead to discretion and hagiography, just as too little leads to antipathy and hatchetography. (One of Coleridge’s biographers, Walter Jackson Bate, came to dislike his subject intensely, and this seriously slews his presentation of the great poet and thinker. The same thing happened to Lawrance Thompson, personally groomed by Robert Frost to write his life.) Drayton is not hagiographical but she does come across as a serious fan, and her sympathy for her subject is as abundantly clear as it was in her recent biography of Ngaio Marsh.
Graham’s book, told in a coolly dispassionate style, runs no danger of being over- or under-sympathetic. Graham, for many years a barrister, is now himself a crime writer, and his is the fullest account of the murder itself and the subsequent trial that anyone interested in this terrible crime could wish for. We learn in detail about the very considerable family fissures and pressures within the English Hulmes and the New Zealand Parkers (these included a ménage à trois, on the one hand, and living out of wedlock on the other), about the girls’ intense friendship (love affair perhaps a more accurate term) and their highly evolved interior life (of which extracts from Parker’s diary give vivid glimpses – an ecstatic vision at Port Levy, for instance, and fantasies of mass extermination), about how desperate the girls became at the prospect of the Hulmes’ imminent departure from Christchurch. A new feature for me was their joint obsession with James Mason films like The Man Between, set in post-war Berlin, with Mason (whom they called “Him”) playing an ex-Nazi trafficker. They went to the movie on 7 May, and Pauline thought it
“wonderful, beautiful, heavenly and Mine …. He was different to what he had ever been before but I love him more than ever now. (Oh Him! Him! Him!) Him means so much to us I could gladly watch him forever. I could do almost anything for him.”
Graham adds that over the next two weeks they saw the film on four further occasions.
One of the strengths of his book is how without being remotely sensationalist he succeeds in suggesting the enormously powerful – terrifying – bond between the girls. Another is the reasonably nuanced portrait of early 1950s Christchurch which emerges as provincial, certainly, and therefore wary of the snooty English Hulmes, but not as conveniently self-satisfied and hypocritical as sometimes depicted. A further strength is the disclosure in the epilogue of what later happened to other key participants. In one very odd twist, within weeks of the end of the trial the crown prosecutor Alan Brown was in Ashburn Hall being treated by Reginald Medlicott, the chief psychiatric witness for the defence. Unlike Drayton, Graham also makes a serious attempt to understand why the girls committed the murder. He explores not just the catalytic motivation (they couldn’t bear to be to separated, saw Parker’s mother as the main stumbling-block to Parker accompanying the departing Hulme family etc) but also a range of psychological categories within which their case histories might fit, such as avoidant attachment, anxious ambivalents, borderline and symbiotic personalities, bipolar disorder and twinship transference.
Both Drayton and Graham rightly point out that moments in Perry’s crime fiction often seem to bear on her own backstory. So Drayton quotes this passage about Perry’s detective Pitt from Bluegate Fields as evidence of Perry’s own sensitivity towards and understanding of the exposure of family secrets:
[Pitt] had seen the damage that the resolution of all secrets could bring; every person should have the right to a certain degree of privacy, a chance to forget or to overcome. Crime must be paid for, but not all sins or mistakes need be made public and explained for everyone to examine and remember. And sometimes victims were punished doubly, once by the offence itself, and then a second and more enduring time when others heard of it, pored over it, and imagined every intimate detail.
In a less partisan spirit, Graham quotes the narrator of Bethlehem Road’s approving comment that “Pitt liked murderers …. It was the petty sinners, the hypocrites, the self-righteous that he could not bear.”
A significant point which Graham explores is how – since the revelation of Perry’s identity – she has in various interviews claimed to offer no excuses while notably blurring the edges of her story. For instance, she has suggested that the particular medication she was taking for tb might have warped her judgement, that she feared her friend’s life was seriously endangered by bulimia, that (however unwillingly) she felt morally obliged to help her obsessively attached friend. Graham subjects these possibilities to close examination: antibiotics don’t warp your judgement; there’s no evidence Parker’s bulimia, if she had it, was life-threatening; the available evidence suggests Hulme’s willing participation in the murder. He crisply concludes: “For all Perry’s lip service to ‘no excuses’ and not blaming others, she admits to nothing more than a youthful error of judgement in highly extenuating circumstances involving the death of a virtual stranger.” By contrast, Parker since the revelation of her new identity in early 1997 has said nothing at all.
Doctor Johnson in his life of his near-contemporary Joseph Addison said that he felt himself “walking upon ashes under which the fire is not extinguished”. Drayton and Graham must have felt much the same, and so will many New Zealand readers of The Search for Anne Perry and So Brilliantly Clever.
Harry Ricketts is co-editor of New Zealand Books; the paperback of his Strange Meetings: The Lives of the War Poets has recently appeared from Pimlico.