Monday, August 20, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“THE SEARCH FOR ANNE PERRY” by Joanne Drayton (Harper-Collins , $NZ44:99)

            To begin this painful review, let me state unequivocally some things I believe.

            I believe that if somebody is convicted of a crime and has served out a sentence, that person has the right to live a life unmolested by journalists who want to keep revisiting the crime.

            A grown and law-abiding woman, now in her seventies, who has “paid her debt to society”, should not be pilloried endlessly for a crime she committed when she was a teenager, no matter how horrendous that crime may have been.   

            I further believe that if that woman, after serving time,  goes on to live a productive and crime-free life, then it should be a matter for rejoicing, not for prurient speculation. Even if too often our prisons are not places of rehabilitation, isn’t that at least what they aspire to be?

            So far, I have said only what Joanne Drayton is ostensibly saying in The Search for Anne Perry.

            Unfortunately, while it condemns sensation-hungry journalists, The Search for Anne Perry is really a book which has its cake and eats it too. The Search for Anne Perry would never have been researched and written if the best-selling author Anne Perry had not, as a teenager, committed murder. Surely this fact was what encouraged Drayton to pursue the project in the first place.

            This is signalled by the book’s very title.

            Apart from being a commonplace title for books that claim to tell the “true story” of somebody, “The Search for…” also immediately suggests that there is some new and sensational thing yet to tell us. (There isn’t.) The front-cover blurb promises “The hidden life of a best-selling author” and includes the familiar photograph of  the teenaged Juliet Hulme, before she became “Anne Perry”, leaving court with her partner in crime. The whole structure of this book is built around a piecemeal revelation of Anne Perry’s version of the crime. It is the centrepiece of the book.

            Joanne Drayton’s protestations to the contrary, then, this book does what those despised journalists have done. It titillates by welding the best-selling author with her unbalanced teenage self. And, to make matters worse, it fudges some of the detail concerning the crime and ends up being very much the “authorised” version of events as Anne Perry now wants them to be understood. A work of PR then, as well as of exploitation. Perhaps it is worth noting that Harper-Collins, the publishers of this book, are among Anne Perry’s publishers as well.

            A few basic facts if you need reminding of them.

            In 1954, when she was 15, Juliet Hulme, member of one of Christchurch’s most respected families, helped her 16-year-old friend Pauline Rieper (Parker) to murder Pauline’s mother by smashing the woman’s head in with a brick. Being a case of matricide, the crime caused a sensation in the press, especially as there were hints of a lesbian relationship between the two girls. They were convicted and imprisoned (separately) for about five years each – a remarkably lenient sentence by today’s standards. When they were released, each disappeared into obscurity under a new and assumed name.

            Literally dozens of sensational articles were written about the case, as well as a couple of (now forgotten) novels, a play and a number of books – including Glamuzina’s and Laurie’s tendentious and often inaccurate  Parker and Hulme – A Lesbian View in 1991. But it wasn’t until 1994, when Peter Jackson’s and Fran Walsh’s movie on the case  Heavenly Creatures was released, that journalists at last set about tracking down and “outing” the two grown women who had once been murderous teenagers. Only then did it become public knowledge that Juliet Hulme was now Anne Perry, best-selling author of Victorian-era thrillers and detective stories, living a single and unshared life in Scotland.

            Last year there appeared Peter Graham’s So Brilliantly Clever, subtitled Parker, Hulme and the Murder That Shocked the World. Despite the sensational subtitle, my review (Sunday Star-Times 16 October 2011) judged it to be a scrupulous, methodical and well-researched account of the murder, and I ventured to suggest it “could well be definitive”. It was deservedly a finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards. Joanne Drayton began her research and writing before Graham’s book appeared. However Graham’s book is listed in her bibliography, and has presumably been consulted. But it is never mentioned or engaged with in Drayton’s text – perhaps because in some important details it contradicts the version that Anne Perry has told to Joanne Drayton, and that Joanne Drayton has accepted uncritically.

            As in thrillers, Joanne Drayton’s technique is suspense. The Search for Anne Perry opens with Perry’s literary agent Meg Davis in 1994 receiving what she thinks is a “ ridiculous” phone call from a New Zealand journalist saying that Perry is the murderer Juliet Hulme and asking for comment. Meg Davis is incredulous and rings Perry, feeling there has been a silly mistake. Drayton writes:

            Meg’s words hit Anne Perry like the first wave of an atomic explosion. She felt physically sick. It had happened at last. The one thing in the world she feared most….” (Pg.12)
            The Search for Anne Perry then proceeds to tell us about the sustaining power of Anne Perry’s Mormon faith and sets about analysing Perry’s books and literary career. We are told of how she broke into writing, of her working methods and rising sales and publishers’ deals. Drayton accounts for every last dollar [or pound] in Perry’s literary contracts. But this is all a matter of suspense as we wait for Perry to be outed. Hence there are the references to Perry’s fear  - inexplicable to her agent and associates - of small things that might put her name or photo in the press.

            Anne Perry has been a diligent and prolific writer. She has written one long series of detective novels with a hero called Pitt, and another series with a hero called Monk. She wrote  a sequence set in the First World War, some fantasy novels and a few other historical novels. Nearly sixty of her titles are listed in the bibliography.
She sure can churn ‘em out.

            As a reviewer, I have read a few of Perry’s thrillers (some before her original identity was known to me). They strike me as good middle-brow stuff, often shaky in their historical details, their characters usually caricatured and wafer-thin, but doing the formula business in terms of presenting a crime story and providing a reasonable solution to a mystery. However there is no way that they could be described as great, or even seriously adult, literature. I therefore find Joanne Drayton’s claims for them, and her pretensions to be writing a “literary biography”, more than a little overblown.

            Novel by novel, we are given synopses and words of approval for Perry’s insights. Of Perry’s first published thriller, Drayton writes:

            Anne Perry opens with [a] powerful reflection on friends and enemies, and continues throughout the novel to make searching and powerful comments about human behaviour. She explores power and sexual inequality, incisively giving the most misogynistic lines to the women who police patriarchal boundaries….” (Pg.26)

            Make searching and powerful comments”? Really? I don’t believe any of Perry’s novels do any such thing. At best, their characters are sometimes vehicles for platitudes and for the type of judgements on Victorian morality that are now clich├ęs . Patriarchy, sexual inequality etc. etc. may be condemned. But isn’t that what we now routinely expect in modern formula novels with period settings?

            Later, speaking of Perry’s most loyal audience, there is the admission that:

            The real interest in Anne’s Pitt novels  still came from the Anglophile North American market….. Victorian England was a territory already extensively explored by British readers, and Anne’s perspective was not fresh enough to convince commissioning editors that it set her work apart.” (Pg.70)

            Quite so. I am not at all surprised to find that Americans are her most avid readers, partly because her novels give a Hollywood version of foggy Victorian London and its mysteries. They play up to movie fantasies of Victorian life. I could add that the great majority of enthusiastic reviews of Perry’s work which Drayton quotes come from either second-rank reviewers or from the Publisher’s Weekly, which is essentially the house journal of the book trade and more concerned with a book’s sales prospects than its literary merits.

            It’s more interesting, however, when Drayton trawls Perry’s books for what they reveal of Juliet Hulme’s past. Bizarrely (on Pg.128), she quotes from one of Perry’s thrillers The Hyde Park Headsman to show how Perry may have drawn on her own experience. Speculating on how a murder was committed, a character comments “Well it’s not very difficult to hit someone on the head, if they trust you and are not expecting anything of the sort.”

            Inevitably, this makes us think of the crime in Christchurch’s Victoria Park. Inevitably, too, it makes us consider the ironies of somebody who has committed murder now making her living writing about violent crime. But then there’s always the possibility that being known for having committed a murder could make an author’s murder mysteries more saleable.

            Only a little under halfway through The Search for Anne Perry [pg.148] does Drayton turn to the circumstances of the 1954 murder itself. Her technique is to cut back and forth between a narrative of 1954 and an account of Perry’s ongoing success as a novelist. This creates a very skewed perspective. Implicitly we are being asked to judge (benignly) the teenager who committed murder in terms of the grown woman assiduously pursuing her craft as a writer. Implicitly, we are invited to see negatively those people who made negative judgements on Juliet (and Pauline) at the time.

            I did not find anything about the 1954 murder in The Search for Anne Perry that I did not already know from Graham’s So Brilliantly Clever. Indeed, given that Drayton sticks so resolutely to Juliet-Anne’s perspective, I found considerably less. Graham gives much, much more than Drayton does on the context, the nature of the police enquiry, the various theories that have been offered, the social impact in New Zealand etc.

            One sentence in Drayton’s book made me gasp with disbelief. Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were both avid writers. Pauline Parker’s diary, in which she detailed how the girls planned to “moider mother”, was one key piece of evidence used in the case against them. Drayton writes blandly that “It is possible that Juliet kept a similar record, but this was never found.” (Pg.178)

            At this point I almost choked.

            In So Brilliantly Clever [Pg. 20], Peter Graham asserts that Juliet’s mother Hilda was quick and astute enough to destroy Juliet’s diary and other of her writings before the police could see them. The inference is that Juliet’s diary would have been just as incriminating as Pauline’s. Graham provides no evidence for saying this but, given the girls’ overheated emotional relationship and their shared habit of writing copiously, I find Graham’s scenario convincing and plausible.

            As this is such a key detail in the story, and as Drayton tells us how often she interviewed Anne Perry, how can she possibly write “it is possible that Juliet kept a similar record”? Didn’t she think to ask her?

            I think it’s perfectly reasonable for me to ask this, especially as Drayton later boasts “I was probably the first properly informed person to whom she had spoken about the murder since the 1950s.”(Pg.362)

            Where Perry has volunteered information, this book very much takes her word for it – and after the best part of 60 years of recalibrating and adjusting and smoothing off her “memories”, Perry is probably not the most reliable witness. Drayton can say “It was a communion of minds and souls when Juliet and Pauline discovered each other in May 1952.” (Pg.155) She can comment “Now each could share the hormone-driven exhilaration of someone of like mind.” (pp.173-174) And yet she accepts Perry’s word when Perry says “There never ever was a sexual element to our friendship.” (Pg.251) We are told of Juliet-Anne’s remorse, when she was in prison,  for what she had done [Drayton calls it an “epiphany”]. But this expression of teenage remorse (Pg.257) is sourced to interviews Perry gave nearly 50 years after the event.

            I can accept that life in Mt Eden Prison was grim in the 1950s and that it was wrong that young Juliet Hulme was never given any psychiatric counselling. Drayton is right to note these things in some detail. But, predictably, The Search for Anne Perry plays up the “moral panic” notion of the New Zealand in the 1950s to argue that reactions to the case were extreme and that therefore – by implication – the girls’ actions and characters were not as bad as they were interpreted.

            If you want to know the detail of the 1954 Parker-Hulme case, then Graham’s So Brilliantly Clever is a far better, more detailed and more comprehensive book than this. If, on the other hand, you want to believe that Anne Perry is a misunderstood literary giant, then The Search for Anne Perry is the book for you.

            I revert to my first opinion – the woman has a right to pursue her craft unmolested by intrusive journalists. But we as readers have a right not to be fed what amounts to a PR job in the guise of an investigation.


  1. Nice review! I made similar conclusions when reading the book.
    The method of citing from old interviews in the biography was also used in Peter Graham’s book “So Brilliantly Clever” (2011). Drayton likely adopted that method on citing articles, interviews and statements from newspapers. This surprised me a bit, why not ask Perry instead of citing old interviews, some of them has been on the InterNet for 18 years, free for everyone to read! Graham obviously didn’t have any choice since Perry refused him an interview, but Drayton who had all opportunites asking everything – didn’t! I also found possible errors of fact: In chapter nine Drayton state that Pauline didn’t talk about the murder to her sister Wendy until her sixties. If based on in Chris Cooke’s article, that information is wrong. Chris Cooke’s article in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly (Jan.1997) state: “Wendy chose not to confront her about what happened and they never talked about until 10 years ago. She says she (Pauline) was an extremist. When things went against her, Hilary (Pauline) went overboard the other way. She did this right from when she was a little girl." In 1997 Hilary (Pauline) was 59 which mean she was in her mid-forties when first talking about the murder to Wendy. Such errors of fact may slip for an ordinary reader but for many of us who has followed the case over the years, it doesn’t.
    I also found little analysis on the relationship between Pauline and Juliet. Drayton usually confirm previous statements or leave them out completely. There are no references to Pauline’s diary on how their relation deepened during the final days before the murder. There are no references to “hectic nights” or “enacting how the saints make love in bed” or learning “the joy of the thing called sin”. Why didn't she ask Perry about her view on Pauline's diaries? As suspected any reader with a serious attempt to understand all the events leading to the death of Honora Parker will not get much from this biography.

  2. it is always sad to read comments or reviews on a person or event, by people who already have an established bias. As in the 'Parker - Hulme' case. There was a bias against Juliet Hulme (Anne Perry)from day one in 1954, by a mentally ill crown prosecuter, inept doctors, sensationalist newspaper reports and gossiping rubbish.it continues to this day by people who have first learnt about that sad saga from those 1954 sources and reports. it is why The Author of the book 'Searching for Anne Perry' has exhorted people to move away from the 1950's mindset that still exists and obviously why she chose the title of the book.Therefore Joanne Drayton is to be highly commended for having the compassion and the guts for taking on that project against such huge opposition and putting the Biography together. Anne Perry is to be highly commended for making a success of life after the extremely adverse experiences she had endured from a small toddler until she was twenty one years of age.
    As an aside. Peter Graham, (author of, so brilliantly clever.) was a crown prosecuter in Hong Kong for close to thirty years. You will not find a crown prosecuter anywhere in the world who would go against a police case.

    Carl Rosel

    1. Sorry, Carl, but you resort to mere ad hominem argument here ("Peter Graham was a police prosecutor, therefore you can't trust him.")and you fail to address the very evasive tone of much of Drayton's book,and Drayton's failure to address some obvious questions.

    2. Carl, you say 'it is always sad to read comments or reviews on a person or event, by people who already have an established bias', but as you've said the same things over and over again on many online forums, does it not seem obvious to you that you're the one with the biased view? You always attack and insult anyone who criticises the murderer, Juliet Hulme. She co-murdered a defenseless, unarmed woman. She is very deserving of criticism.

  3. Where has my last comment gone

    1. Apologies Carl, but I don't know myself. I was notified of it by e-mail [as I am for all new comments], but when I looked for it on the blog I couldn't find it. Are you sure you attached it to the right posting?

  4. Hi Nicholas,

    I wrote comment on this page and clicked, Publish, so it is hard to understand.

  5. Hi Nicholas,

    You have falsely accused Joanne Drayton of having a very evasive tone in her book 'Searching for Anne Perry'
    Joanne Drayton used a very sensitive and non-invasive approach with Anne Perry. Non-invasive, not evasive.
    She did not bulldoze in asking anything and everything, putting Anne Perry on the spot or trying to corner her and coerce and force answers from her.
    Anne Perry has said she has tried to be honest about the situation in 1954 and Joanne Drayton showed her respect and a gentle approach. Imagine attempting, when 73 years of age, trying to explain how you felt and thought when you were a 15 year old schoolchild, with people waiting to shoot down everything you say, and don't say.
    Joanne Drayton has exhorted us all to move away from that 1950's period, which she has stated is punitive and embarrassing.She is to be highly commended for her approach, which enabled her to spend time and interview Anne Perry in the first place and then write the Biography. Without that non-invasive approach it would not have happened.
    We now know more of a woman who had had experiences fraught with extreme stress and trauma from a toddler until she was 21 years of age and who has risen above all that and made a success of life. And as described in 'Searching for Anne Perry'she is a gentle, good intensely moral person and has been for over half a century. And this is 2012.

    Carl Rosel

    1. Greetings Carl. I genuinely appreciate your heartfelt expression of a point of view about this particular book and case, in which you appear to have something emotionally invested. In spite of what you may suspect, you have not at any stage been "censored" off this blog until now; but at this point I think you have stated your case clearly and I will therefore remove any further comments. Regrettably, your method appears to be abuse and generalization. I repeat the point I made in the original review - if the author is going to pride herself on conducting informed interviews, then she owes it to her readers to ask obvious and important questions. Cant about 'non-invasive' interviews carries no weight at all. It merely provides a platform for Anne Perry to give the world her version of the murder as she now chooses to imagine it. As for your statement that Anne Perry has been a "gentle, good, intensely moral" person for over half a century, there is nothing in my review that says any otherwise. Please actually read what you are criticising. This is my own standard technique when I review books.

    2. Just so you know, Carl, Joanne Drayton admitted in a recent interview she did not ask Anne Perry why she had committed murder. Surely that should be the first question on the list of anyone interviewing Anne Perry.

      The list of questions should be:

      Why did you murder Honora Rieper?
      Why did you say you and Pauline Parker were not lesbian lovers?
      How did your so-called 'repentance' manifest itself?
      How much money in total have you paid (in compensation) to the Rieper family?
      Why did you decide to write about murder?
      What psychiatric treatment for psychosis have you had over the years?
      Why have you given five different reasons for your decision to kill?
      Why did you call Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh 'idioytic film-makers'?
      Do you want to meet Pauline Parker?

      Any interviewer not asking Anne Perry any of those questions is not interviewing her properly.

  6. I have just finished reading Drayton's book, after hearing her speak at the 2012 Vancouver Writers Fest. Although she is an engaging and warm personality on stage, her book did not at all live up to my expectations. Drayton stressed the need for a biographer to be free to interpret, analyse and evaluate her subject without interference, but her book reads like gushy fan mail. Like you, I don't think Anne Perry is a good enough writer to merit this kind of attention. Her biographer should have focussed on providing new, personal insights about the psyche of Juliet/Anne, and perhaps even hazard an opinion about what Anne is NOT apparently doing: donating some of her time and money to the victims of violent crime, for example, or to the rehabilitation of young offenders, to name two of a limitless number of ways she could use her experience to benefit people other than her very partisan agents and herself. (How lovely that instead she spent millions building herself such a beautiful home...!)

    I agreed so much with your review that I had to punctuate it with an enthusiastic 'Yes!' every line or so. Thank you for not being cowed by the need to keep Perry's legion fans happy!

  7. The question is not simply, 'Shouldn't we forgive, (or at least forget) what Anne Perry did in light of her current life as a bestselling author and presumably, as well a functioning member of society'? Ok, it's a mouthful. But really, did Perry think her past would remain dormant/'secret' when she is a bestselling author of books plotted around murder, and a confessed murderess?? Most writers cannot keep pen-names secret if they try, (Stephen King/Richard Bachman as example). She even uses, (as per your above reference) a sociopathically insensitive reference to killing someone in her first book that eerily reflects how she killed Honora Rieper nee Parker.
    The problem is what she does now, and what she says now that indicate she has never, as she puts it, 'repented' or 'found repentance'.
    To repent you have to admit culpability in the first place and take full responsibility for your actions. If you put the blame on everything and everyone else (Anne Perry has cited everything from harmless antibiotics to Yvonne Parker's depression as justification for Anne's part in the murder and still states, 'I helped' to murder. As if she did not hold down Honora's head and beat her 40 times with a brick).

    Repentance and denial do not go hand-in-hand. If you want to be truthful with anyone, especially yourself, start by admitting your guilt without the 'ifs', 'ands' and 'buts' and hemming and hawing that make everyone roll their eyes and doubt your credibility, much less your conscience.