Anne Perry has spent her adult life trying to escape the notoriety of her role in one of Christchurch's and New Zealand's most sensational murders, so why has she co-operated so willingly in a new biography? CATHERINE WOULFE reports.
Juliet Hulme calls herself Anne Perry now. The Kate Winslet one from Heavenly Creatures. Yeah, no, not the daughter - the friend. The one who helped the daughter kill the mum. Lesbians, for sure. Oh yeah, the whole thing was creepy. Happened in that park we went to that time. Didn't she move to Britain, write a bunch of crime novels, or something?"
That is how we talk about Anne Perry these days, if indeed we ever do. The 1954 Parker-Hulme murder has become the stuff of myth, Perry and her role in it a sort of received national wisdom, framed by certain images and ideas. A brick in a stocking. A diary. A tall 15-year-old girl, beautiful and dirty-minded and diabolical, smirking as she strolls out of court.
Now that girl is 73, a Mormon, living a "monastic life" in a tiny Scottish village, and bracing herself for another round of publicity thanks to the release of a startlingly sympathetic new biography.
The Search for Anne Perry, released yesterday, was not authorised - Perry wasn't given the right to censor anything. But after meeting New Zealand biographer Joanne Drayton once, in London, Perry decided to participate in the project.
She gave Drayton unprecedented time and frankness, inviting her to her home, giving her stacks of old photographs, and spending about 50 hours talking into a dictaphone. In their downtime, they hung out, went for walks and watched a bit of telly. It would have been fun: two intelligent, vibrant women, chewing the fat, talking about art and Capri, the crappy way Mormonism treats women. Oh, and murder.
"I am the first person who has spoken to her to that extent," Drayton says. "Her mother wouldn't talk about it. Her father wouldn't talk about it. Her brother wasn't there for most of it. She had no counselling. No-one else, almost, knew about it.
"I walk in from New Zealand 55 years later and we have the first real conversation that she has had about it, with someone who has the context - the full context."
After all that, this is how Drayton talks about her.
"I like her. She's unusual. She's formidable because she's so intelligent. She has this sort of vulnerability and a kind of fragility.
"She's got this vivid imagination. Talking to her is like far out, man. It's like art.
"I look at Anne Perry and think, she had this devastating, terrible, utterly shocking start to life, and she's pulled off something I would say pretty close to miraculous."
Drayton has written acclaimed biographies of Edith Collier, Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus and Dame Ngaio Marsh - all extraordinary women, she says, but to her, Perry is the most extraordinary of the lot.
"She's been at the bottom of anywhere that you can possibly be. She's found her way back and reached a huge height and achieved a huge amount. I just think, 'My God, that's stunning'."
You could be forgiven, at this point, for raising an eyebrow and muttering something like, "Yes, but she's a murderer".
I did, when I started this book. Drayton is clearly in Perry's corner - although she does a thorough job of justifying that - and that annoyed me. But by the end I was inclined to do as Drayton has, and allow Perry the chance to reinvent herself.
Perry now lives in a restored stone barn in Portmahomack, a tiny coastal village in Scotland. She has three dogs and two cats and hundreds of spring bulbs. No booze, no coffee, not many visitors. She knits. She listens to opera. She writes two or three crime novels every year and has sold about 26 million of them.
"I think it's a battle for her, always. I think she's done something terrible. She can't exorcise that completely. She brings her head and her heart to [her writing], each time."
The result is "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful pieces of writing".
"You can't get that depth and that intensity in those lines without having something to bring to it."
This biography spends a lot of time analysing Perry's books and the details of how she came to be a bestselling author.
It gives a sobering account of Perry's time in Mt Eden prison, during which her former naivety and arrogance lifted, leaving her in a "catastrophic" space.
It details her continuing fragility, her habit of making forlorn phone calls to her agent, Meg Davis.
Has Drayton had any calls like that from Perry?
"Yeah, I think I have had a few. I think she does . . . crave the reassurance. She does actually. She reaches out."
The book also gives Perry's account of what it felt like to be outed in 1994, by which time she was a bestselling crime writer, and therefore doubly interesting.
Many readers will be hoping for details about the murder itself, particularly that enduring question: were Anne Perry and Pauline Parker in a lesbian relationship?
"It was asserted in the trial and it was hinted at in other situations, but it wasn't proved," Drayton says.
"They definitely never said yes and, interestingly enough, they actually were quite horrified [at the suggestion].
"It was a same-sex intense relationship, but it didn't have to be a physical relationship and certainly I don't think they framed it up that way."
During their interviews, Perry told Drayton she had several "red-hot affairs" with men in England and the United States after her release. "In each case, I really hoped and prayed that it would go somewhere - and I'm even more grateful that it didn't. It was probably romance and hormonal, up to about 40 [years old].
"Did I have affairs? Yes, I did. Did I sleep with them? You bet I bloody did. Did it go anywhere? No."
"Before you ask," Drayton says, "the answer to the question about Pauline is no, they haven't seen each other". After the trial, the two did meet a few times in prison. Perry quickly let go of the relationship, although she tended to think of Pauline at times of crisis.
Pauline now goes by the name Hilary Nathan, and is retired, a devout Roman Catholic, in the southeast England county of Kent. She was a riding-school instructor and deputy principal of a special-needs school. She has cut herself off from the world - no radio, internet or television - and has never given an interview.
Perry has not been back to New Zealand. She refuses to watch Heavenly Creatures - "It's too traumatic". This book seems less so, perhaps. Drayton sent Perry's agent an early draft to look over "some of the legal stuff". They didn't ask for any changes - just pointed out a few details that might be legally sensitive.
But it is already causing fallout among Perry's friends. Many of them knew the basic facts of her past, but deliberately quarantined themselves from the full story.
"They are quite disturbed," Drayton says, "kind of traumatised."
The irony is that in urging us to move on from the murder, the biography has to rehash it. The myth will be revised, or maybe it won't. Either way there will be a wave of reviews, interviews, plain old views. For a time, Anne Perry will be Juliet Hulme again.
Does Drayton worry about what that might do to her formidable, fragile friend?
For the first time in our interview, she hesitates.
"I, I . . . yep. I do, actually. In my dark moments, I do."
MURDER SHE WROTE
Excerpts from Anne Perry's books:
"Well, it's not very difficult to hit someone on the head, if they trust you and are not expecting anything of the sort." - The Hyde Park Headsman
"Actually to kill someone, you have to care desperately over something, whether it is hate, fear, greed or because they stand in the way between you and something you hunger for." - Resurrection Row
"[Murder is] a double tragedy - not only for the victim and those who cared for her, but for the murderer also, and whoever loved or needed or pitied the tormented soul . . . [For] society was cruel; it seldom forgave, and it never, ever forgot." - Rutland Place
- The Press
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