Mystery to the End

By

My mom recently read about Anne Perry in The Writer’s Almanac and sent me the link, still feeding me what’s good to eat: Perry, an international bestselling crime novelist who at fifteen had helped murder a friend’s mother. The Almanac was featuring her on her birthday, October 28. A Scorpio, like me.

I was late; many people all over the world already knew of Perry: Born in England, 1938, as Juliet Hulme; contracted tuberculosis as a girl and was sent to live with a foster family in the Bahamas. She didn’t rejoin her parents until she was thirteen, in Christchurch, New Zealand, where her father was president of a university. There she developed a close friendship with fellow student Pauline Parker, and the die of Perry’s life was cast. In pictures Juliet was pretty, gorgeous even, a strong face framed by a mane of hair. Pauline was homelier, dour. In retrospect something smoldered in both.

Chances are you’ve seen Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson’s captivating movie with Kate Winslet playing Juliet, the young Perry. Her delirious bond with Pauline, the fantasy world they create and write together, their novels of which they’re so proud and sure. They’re going to run away from their parents who’ve failed them, to America, where they’ll publish their stories to acclaim, have them made into Hollywood movies. They swoon and giggle madly, falling over each other in collaboration, love, escape. The two girls are smart, intoxicated by the reality and narrative of themselves. But the bond grows cloying, the attachment unbalanced and hermetic, the relationship a desperate measure.

They’re going to be separated for good–Juliet’s parents are divorcing, her father is sending her away to live in South Africa. It’s Pauline’s mother, Honora Parker, who is the chief problem, as the girls see it, denying Pauline permission to go with Juliet overseas. So the girlfriends plot a murder. We know this, like so much else about the story, from Pauline’s diary, which was recovered—not so the diary of the more prolific one. What clues to their dark bond might have Juliet’s diary held?

They kill Honora during a daytime stroll in Victoria Park, first distracting her with colored pebbles thrown on the ground, then taking turns smashing her in the head with half a brick, bludgeoning the unsuspecting woman to death with dozens of blows.

With the release of Heavenly Creatures in 1994 journalists wondered what had become of the two girls and went looking. Forty years after the crime, in a remote part of Scotland, they found the remains of Juliet Hulme inside the person of bestselling mystery writer Anne Perry, true paragon of the literary ex-con. She published her first novel, The Cater Street Hangman, in 1979, twenty years after she was released from prison and deported from New Zealand. She has now published more than sixty novels and sold more than twenty-five million copies worldwide: A Sudden, Fearful Death, Angels in the Gloom, Betrayal at Lisson Grove. The public revealing of her past instantly imbued her stories with fraught subtext. The author had eclipsed her characters.

 ***

I write Perry a letter. I tell her I’ve lived with murderers in prison—for a drug crime in South Korea in the mid-1990s—Big Green among them, an American man who had killed his two young sons, whose character I wrestled with in life and on the page. In our prison factory and out in the exercise grounds between the blocks, Green often told me how deeply he feared being judged for his murder for the rest of his life. “What you did was nothing,” he would protest sadly. “People think it’s cool.” He would have to hide his crime. “My family, what’s left of it, they’ve all disowned me. None of them will talk to me.”

How to make sense of this man, a child killer—less rare than matricide—and yet my friend, a man possessing decency, kindness, generosity, humor, in comparable measures to any other man I’d known. He helped me with money. He listened to my tales and nonsense. He reminded me how fortunate I’d been, of my favorable cards. I tell Perry that Green’s story broke my heart and enriched my spirit. I saw how his murder tortured and shamed him, how the punishment of prison couldn’t compare to that in his head. Perry’s story brought me back to Green, bringing me back to her.

I want to pull her close, know her secrets. There’s the prolific writer, who I can admire. There’s also the murderer who compels, with that wicked glamour of the killer: the sense that they’ve been somewhere we haven’t, that they might know something we don’t—not a good and bright thing, but maybe some secret over life and death, one that most of us have at some time dreamed about or recoiled from, prayed for. I’m compelled by thoughts of how such an act, done so early in life, has to be carried, how it leaves its permanent mark on everyone around it. How does Perry’s actual crime affect her imaginary ones? And what do her stories mean for her in light of her past?

I recently watched with fascination the film of her current life, Anne Perry: Interiors. That was brave of you to do, I tell her in my letter. I was struck by so much in the documentary: her beautiful home, which reminded me of my mother’s house in the woods of Vermont; her loneliness; her writing craft and imaginary worlds; her often silent contending with stigma, the tireless judgments of people.

At the end of Interiors Perry says that big changes are coming. It’s time to get out of her comfort zone, she asserts, to not live so shut away. Let me be part of this, I ask her. Let me speak with you.

In an email, Perry’s agent, Meg Davis, declines my request, saying that while they were moved by my message, Interiors was meant to be the last and definitive word on the matter, Anne’s last interview on the subject of her former life, her autobiographical crime and punishment.

***

Interiors, set nearly entirely in and around Perry’s remote Scottish home, is beautiful and odd, sacred and haunted, a portrait of a writer in her craft, often on her recliner, with paper and pen, off in fantasies of Victorian crimes and investigations, away from the present world and our shadowy fascinations. In the film she speaks to the questions in my head, about how her past has chased her, how it haunts her.

interiors“Most of the people I know who like me, my friends, don’t want me to talk about it because they find it distressing,” Perry, regal and guarded, tells the camera. “I suppose because they think it’s painful and they don’t want me to be hurt. ‘Forget it. Don’t talk about it. Let go of it.’”

But then the let-go-of-it of those few friends and loved ones is explained by them at different moments as: Tell us. Just open up and let it out. Drag it into the light of day, Dear Anne.

Meg MacDonald, Perry’s close friend who lives next door and whom she visits daily on breaks from her writing, describes the murder as “the thing that happened.” She wishes her friend would just unburden herself. But how? What more can she say to make sense of it? I know: Why did you and Pauline do it? How could you? This is what we’re after, this impossible reason.

“Secrets are corrosive,” Perry’s driver says.

The dutiful woman who serves as Perry’s transcriber, typing up her hand-written pages every day, quietly tells the camera: “She’s a very lonely person.”

Perry’s closest companions seem to be her stories. And she works them religiously. What refuge they give her. What suspension of herself, in them acting out her fears and horrors, the redemption she longs for.

Perry says toward the beginning of Interiors that if she were offered twice as much money not to write, she would say keep your money and would just keep on writing. She has to. Can’t stop, I thought.

Susceptible to literature could be the diagnosis. A proclivity for all-consuming invention. The make-believe world she and Pauline created back there in staid Christchurch of the 1950s was a large part of their bond, something they clung to fiercely against the outside world of their families and school: Their lives transposed into art and the art manifesting forces out of control that then seeped back into life.

There is an apparently apocryphal detail in the legend of the Parker-Hulme case that holds that a condition of the girls’ release from prison was that they never again communicate with each other. Upon her release, Pauline also changed her name. Like Perry, she too eventually found her way to England, and now reportedly, incredibly, lives within a hundred miles of Perry in Scotland. Does some forbidding magnetism still draw them close? “A murder story about love,” Peter Jackson called it. It’s not publicly known whether the two have ever spoken since their trial nearly sixty years ago.

***

“She’s still killing people,” my mom says. “Just in her stories.” Knowing the outline of Perry’s past, how can we read her novels without thinking of it, reflecting her stories through that rough prism? Davis, Perry’s agent, told me that her favorite novel of Anne’s is The Shifting Tide. Early in the story we learn that her beloved and durable leading man, the detective William Monk, knows that a bludgeoning death will leave not smears so much as pools of blood: “If a man is hit over the head hard enough to kill him, there’s usually a lot of blood,” Monk informs a skeptic. Six pages on, Perry describes his moral outrage, his hatred for the killer and a deep empathy for the victim’s loved ones. It is as if Perry is murderer, victim, and outraged third party all at once.

Anne_PerryA window into her thinking: a remarkable seven-minute video of a conversation between Perry and Scottish crime novelist Ian Rankin as they sit facing each other in the back of a sedan. Perry is wearing a red turtleneck and has cropped hair, a muted sunlight glows above her in the car’s rear window. In this exchange Perry seems more candid and generous than anywhere else. Rankin is clearly fascinated by his fellow crime writer who’s been where he hasn’t.

“How does your crime and prison experience affect what you write?” he asks Perry for me.

“You know, I never thought about it until other people . . . Really I want to write a novel and a crime is a good peg to hang it on,” she says.

Crime just a good peg? That can’t be all there is to it. In her 2012 book The Search for Anne Perry, biographer Joanne Drayton traces the connections between Perry’s own life and her storylines of violent deaths, moral crisis and justice. Drayton sees in her stories Perry’s search to forgive and redeem herself, with her flawed protagonists playing this out in one novel after another.

Perry tells Rankin of her “characters doing bad things only for you to later learn it was for good reasons. And you thought this person was good, but in fact wasn’t. It’s not as easy as you thought.” This is the great existential conundrum any thinking person encounters in prison, or whenever faced with someone who’s been out to our margins yet is still recognizable in so many ways: How to make sense of men and women like this? The equation is unequal, impossible to reconcile.

The title of New Zealand crime writer Peter Graham’s book about the Parker-Hulme case, So Brilliantly Clever, comes from a line in Pauline’s diary, apparently referring to how superior and special she and Juliet were in their plans for the future.

Graham told the press that he had called Perry in Scotland to request an interview for the book and she declined, asking him, “Do you have any idea how unbearably painful this is for me?” Graham defended the interest, telling the New Zealand Herald, “It’s a book that needed to be written. It’s public property, I think. What they did was so horrendous.”

We’re compelled to keep looking at that traumatic past, turning it over: Honora Parker smashed to death by her own daughter and a friend. The ultimate mystery and stain; a killer who is articulate and has lived much beyond the crime, at the fringe of our experience, in our moral wastelands. Perry should be allowed to move on, become someone new, leave that brutal past, that one moment, behind her. I want this for her and yet I bring the case back up. The mysteries pull at me. I’m drawn to these stories like insects to the light, like the flying creatures that at night swarmed the lights on the walls outside my cell window. How foreign, how extreme. What exactly are you? What do you know? What’s out there in that darkness?

***

Juliet Hulme was sent to Auckland’s Mount Eden Prison. Her sentence was at “Her Majesty’s pleasure,” meaning indeterminate.  “At the time it was endless,” she told Rankin in the car, “because I didn’t know how long it was going to be.” A pit with a bottom is finer than any abyss.

She served roughly five and a half years, the same as Big Green. They both got off easy, most would say, but I have no doubts about how they’ve suffered. Green tucked himself away in Koreatown, Los Angeles. He scraped by, bought cases of beer, watched movies on his laptop. His choice for slow suicide was the skin cancer that he let grow in his body. He died at 45. Perry was deported from New Zealand, tucked herself away in rural Scotland, buried herself in her stories.

Rankin, sensing something Perry has gained, asks her how important the punishment was: “I think it’s vital. I think until you feel that you’ve settled the debt you can’t move on. By paying you can cut the strings and then you can move on. You can allow yourself to move on. I can sit and look you in the eye. Yes, I have dealt with it. I believe that I’ve paid. It now for me no longer exists. I can move on and be the best person I can be.”

Prison doesn’t play on my conscience either; in all its primitiveness it played its part well. But I didn’t commit a violent crime. I think murder must linger beyond the punishment. It must still haunt her and I keep reading her stories looking for signs.

At what point does the redemption come, Rankin wonders. “That’s a very spiritual question, to which I could only give you my own estimate of the answer,” Perry tells him steadily. “The redemption comes when you no longer wish to be that kind of person. When you see it as ugly and understand why it’s not what you want to be. Not what you should be, but what you want to be. And that’s the difference. Not because somebody outside is telling you, ‘This is not what you do.’ But because you yourself say, ‘This is not who I want to be.’”

Despite all that Perry has shared publicly, all that we’ve asked of her, there remains the impression that she hasn’t told her own story, that she’s keeping it a mystery. I think she knows that in some sense it always will be.

“I wish she could trust other people with her life because until she does, she’s not going to be free of the bogeyman,” her close friend Meg worries in Interiors.

So on Perry writes, losing and reaffirming herself in her rich imagination, freeing herself of the bogeyman, keeping him alive.

***

Anne Perry will be in conversation at Litquake in San Francisco on October 18.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →