So Brilliantly Clever - Peter Graham

20:06, Oct 14 2012

A lively crowd offered shouted commentary, whispered discussion and even a few giggles at Peter Graham's So Brilliantly Clever talk with Page and Blackmore Readers and Writers Festival coordinator Jacquetta Bell yesterday.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised to hear people laughing about this particular murder case. Graham's book about the 1954 matricide made famous by Heavenly Creatures is full of juicy detail, and the details surrounding the crime contain layers of scandal that still have the power to captivate audiences today: the lesbian attraction between murderers Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme, the girls' extreme youth, the elements of class warfare, the situation between Juliet's mother and her live-in lover Bill Perry, and the relative rarity of mother-killing worldwide.    

Graham was seven years old when the trial attracted widespread international coverage, but developed an interest in the case in 1972 when he began working for a member of Juliet's defense team, Brian McClelland. He doesn't remember the trial when it happened, saying his mother and father likely kept the coverage away from him to save his morals. This was a common theme among people of his generation, said Graham: “I suppose parents didn't want their children asking 'Mummy what's a lesbian?'”

In So Brilliantly Clever, Graham uses material such as diary excerpts, letters, verbal reports and a court transcript to tell the story of how Pauline, 16, and Juliet, 15, pushed one another into such an extreme state of disassociation from reality that they killed Pauline's mother in order to stay together. The first half covers events leading up to the murder trial, and the second half covers the trial itself and what the girls did with their lives afterwards.

 After two and half years of simultaneous research and writing, Graham's stance on the trial is that the judge essentially got it right. Both girls served five years in prison before being released, although Juliet was given a harsher sentence in a less comfortable prison than Pauline's.

Graham argues that Juliet, now a writer of best-selling crime fiction named Anne Perry was “a sort of narcissist-psychopath type” who was dominant in the relationship and has never really felt remorse for her crime. He has more sympathy for Pauline, now named Hilary Nathan, although noting that the murder was “definitely” her idea.

Asked whether he grew fond of the pair during his long research, Graham said the opposite was true. 

“I mean, they were dreadful,” he said.

One of Graham's favourite anecdotes about Juliet and Pauline came from a journalist who had known a policewoman involved in the trial, Audrey Griffiths: 

“[Griffiths] would never forget Juliet's coldhearted tomfoolery. She was shocked to hear [Juliet] say to Pauline in a stage whisper, 'The old girl took a bit more killing than we thought.' When Griffiths took her to task, Juliet turned on her, jeering, 'Oh, aren't we the perfect little policewoman.'”  

Graham's book is only the second non-fiction exploration of the case, although New Zealand academic Joanne Drayton published a biography of Juliet Hulme earlier this year.  

Audience member Michelle Lane said she came to hear more about Anne Perry's background after reading the biography, while Nelson woman Sally Warren had multiple personal connections with the case. A friend's father had been involved with Pauline's defense, while a different contact's daughter had acted in Heavenly Creatures. A third audience member had once shared a flat with the daughter of Nancy Sutherland, a family friend of Juliet's - Graham said there were “always a few” who came forward with stories and anecdotes.

In the meantime, Graham has just returned from three weeks in Dublin researching a new crime book.  

“It's a great story,” he enthuses, explaining the murder happened during the 1916 Easter rebellion.

“I've got so much good stuff, now it's just a case of knocking it into shape.”