Monday, August 20, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
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 clichés . 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.