In a plot twist worthy of one of her own murder mysteries, bestselling U.K. crime writer Anne Perry was revealed not quite a decade ago to be one and the same as Juliet Hulme, one of two teenage girls convicted in a sensational New Zealand murder case. Perry's identity came to light in the resurgence of interest in the killing surrounding the release of Peter Jackson's 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, which was based on the 1954 case. (Hulme was played by Kate Winslet.) Forty years later, Perry – living in the Scottish Highlands and a prolific author of Victorian crime fiction – was distraught to learn that her past had caught up with her. And those around her, who for the most part had been kept completely in the dark about Perry's past, were stunned.
"I hope you're sitting down, because there's something we didn't know about Anne," Meg Davis, Perry's Canadian-born literary agent, told her boss that day.
The story is recounted in The Search for Anne Perry , a new book by academic and literary biographer Joanne Drayton who spent many of her formative years in Christchurch, in the shadow of the infamous local case.
"I felt compelled in a way to challenge the way that she was perceived," said Drayton during an interview this week from Auckland, where she now lives. "It just seemed to me you can't leave someone in a prison of association forever. You have to acknowledge that someone has moved on and changed and evolved and developed a useful contributing life apart from the thing they got horribly wrong."
In school, Juliet Hulme developed an intense friendship with Pauline Parker, and the girls became inseparable. When Hulme was to leave for South Africa, following her parents' split, Parker wanted to come along. Her mother, Honora Rieper, said no, and a plan to remove the obstacle was hatched. In June, 1954, Rieper was killed by the girls while out for a walk together on a remote trail. The murder weapon: a half-brick in an old stocking, brought over to Parker's house by Hulme.
The matricide shocked and riveted New Zealand, with sensational coverage that speculated the girls were insane; diabolical; lesbians (deep into the book, we hear from Perry that the relationship was never sexual – but this quote comes from a 10-year-old newspaper article). The girls were convicted of murder and released after serving five years in separate institutions.
Upon her release, Juliet was able to disappear into a new name, and a new life in the U.K. She lived in the United States for a few years (Toronto for a spell later on), became a devout Mormon and ultimately a writer. By the time her identity was revealed in 1994, she was publishing her 19 th book. Her present tally tops 60 and she has sold more than 26 million books, which include her critically acclaimed Thomas Pitt and William Monk series, a five-part series set during the First World War, and her annual Christmas novellas.
Her literary achievements haven't been completely overshadowed by her own past, but ever since Perry was outed as a teenage killer herself, this has been part of the narrative – in particular, says Drayton, in New Zealand. And her biographer felt there was a lot more to tell.
"Because it happened here," she says, "we've become so, I think, fixated with ... that part of her story. But it is only part of her story. And a very small part of her story."
Perry, understandably, is gun-shy about doing media interviews – she (or her publicist) turned down The Globe and Mail's request for an interview – but agreed to be interviewed by Drayton for this biography after they met in London.
"I think she was really ready to talk and give this series of interviews for a biography," says Drayton, whose initial requests to interview Perry for the biography were also turned down, with Perry – or Perry's camp – ultimately having a change of heart when Drayton said she would write the book either way (although she now says she probably wouldn't have). A meeting was set up for London, the women talked for a while, and Perry invited Drayton to her home, where they spent nine intense days discussing her life.
"It was for her quite harrowing, I think, although it was good for her to ... to some extent make peace with her history a little bit," says Drayton. "But I think she fears the fallout from it."
The book is crafted around what Drayton calls a conversation between the adult Anne and the child Juliet, a journey as opposed to an interrogation. While Perry, now 73, participated, this is not an authorized biography. There were no restrictions placed on the writer, and Perry did not approve the manuscript; in fact, Drayton says Perry hasn't read it, and probably never will. (Perry's agent did read an early draft and suggested changes based on legal concerns – business stuff, Drayton says.)
Drayton didn't approach the project as a true-crime book, but as a literary biography. Perry's novels, and their echoes of Perry's own life, are summarized and deconstructed. In her books, the themes of redemption, moral grey areas and a sort of feminism arise repeatedly. In her work, she is able to create a world where characters can be redeemed.
While Perry regularly participates in literary events, Drayton calls her decision to appear with her biographer at two upcoming Canadian festivals – in Alberta and Vancouver – "a big step." Drayton speculates Perry feels comfortable in Canada, given her connections to this country (her stepfather, Bill Perry, was also Canadian-born). And she understands Perry's wariness.
"I can see what she has to live with. When people can't allow you to be something better than a murderer ever, then it's a permanent sentence. There's no getting out of that one. To survive, you've either got to shut that story out, or you've got to shut those people out.
"It's an accountability which, when the woman is in her 70s now, is just ridiculous," Drayton continues. "I think for her it seems like a relentless banging on about something that she knows was terrible, but she has put behind [her] and moved on, and done so much since."
Anne Perry and Joanne Drayton will appear at WordFest in Calgary and Banff, which runs from
Oct. 9-14 and at the Vancouver Writers Fest (Oct. 16-21).