Death and Rebirth: The Murder Mysteries of Anne Perry

20:53, Nov 08 2012

In Peter Graham's talk at the Granary last month, he revealed Heavenly Creatures murderer Juliet Hulme had grown up to become a bestselling crime novelist named Anne Perry.

A former lawyer, Graham published So Brilliantly Clever last year after two and a half years' writing and research. The book explores the lives of Perry and her companion Pauline Parker before, during and after their brutal killing of Parker's mother.

After the talk, I found the idea of a crime writer with practical experience too delicious to resist and trotted off to find a Perry book in Nelson. To my surprise, Perry has authored more than 80 publications held in the Tasman District Libraries, from multi-book series in large and small print, to audiobooks, to articles in the Australian Women's Weekly. Nelson libraries had a similar turnout at 83 books and items.

It turns out that Perry is a very well-known author in the world of crime fiction, particularly in America. Having published her first book, The Cater Street Hangman in 1979, Perry now claims she is author to the longest-running sustained crime series by a living writer in the world. She even has a Twitter account, although it hasn't been used for a while.

Perry's range was ... interesting. She has at least three long-running series: eight novels in the Inspector Pitt lot; five under the World War I title and an amazing 17 focusing on Inspector Monk. There are also four stand-alone novels, and something which made me laugh out loud when I saw it on the shelf: The Christmas Novellas.

If you desire to get into the festive spirit with a convicted murderer, you can pick from A Christmas Visit, A Christmas Guest, A Christmas Beginning or any one of eight jolly after-dinner mysteries. My copy of A Christmas Odyssey has the Oxford Times describing it as, "Delightful... The perfect gift for a whodunit addict who likes to curl up with a good book after Christmas lunch."

Snarkiness aside, I wasn't too impressed with Odyssey. It described the journey of a gentleman named Henry Rathbone and reformed scoundrel Squeaky Robinson as they travel through London's underclass to bring home a dissolute young family friend in time for Christmas. Eventually Perry mentioned this youngster is supposed to be 30 years old, which amused me no end.

The book was suitably short at 152 large-type pages, but it assumed quite a lot of background knowledge from the reader. This kind of publication is aimed at long-term fans who've been there right from the start, so Perry would probably get away with that most of the time, but something which bothered me more was the novel's coyness.

There was a lot of talk about "unspeakable things" and "improper behaviour" but it took a lot of work to figure out what was actually being implied. Perry even ropes in what has to be Hieronymous Bosch to indicate the levels of depravity she refuses to describe herself:

"There's a bottom of despair... And a bottom of power, an' cruelty. We haven't even touched the places where people do things to each other like some of those paintings by that German feller, or Dutch he was, maybe. Pictures of torture, an' things with animals you wouldn't even think of."

Despite these terrifying threats, the heroes manage to locate the villain who has been allowing young Lucien to fall prey to his baser instincts, burn him alive in a sewer, and return to the land of the living unscathed. I read it to the end without too much trouble but I couldn't help thinking my time would have been better spent on something else.

Given the vast number of books Perry has written, I felt it was only fair to read some of her serious work as well, so I got out the second-last volume in the Inspector Monk series, Acceptable Loss. To my surprise, I quite liked it.

The book had many of the flaws that can crop up in popular crime fiction: predictable social settings, stereotyping of social and ethnic underclasses, repetition of important plot points, clunky dialogue and the occasional wallow in morality. However, the characters were interesting and well-developed, the web of intrigue was tight and the historical setting was faultlessly well-maintained.

Perry is a class act when she's given enough room to build a plot, and she is a good deal less flirtatious with the gory detail in long-form- although it still took her until pg 237 to explain the nature of the crime exactly. 

Graham suggested in his lecture that Perry had used her notoriety to promote herself as a murder-mystery author. Indeed, it does look an awful lot like she spent five years in prison for the crime and then simply carried on with her life as planned, mining her memory for realism occasionally. A central motif in Graham's book was the importance of writing and stories in the relationship between Perry and Parker.

"I don't really think Juliet, now Anne Perry, loses too much sleep thinking about the murder she committed in 1954 but I'm not at all sure the same thing applies to Pauline," he said.