Anne Perry: crime and punishment

A few years ago, a good friend suggested I try reading a book by Anne Perry.  She knew I enjoyed Victorian mysteries.  She also told me that when Perry was a teenager, she had been convicted as an accessory to a matricide by her good friend, served time, and now wrote mysteries.  I thought it curious that someone who had committed such a serious crime now wrote so well about crime, but I read my first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt book and was hooked.  After I retired, I went back and read all of them in order.  I’ve also read some of her William Monk books, but I find the Pitts very compelling.  I had forgotten about Perry’s criminal past until I read this past week’s column by Rebecca Balint in the Brattleboro Reformer. [link to be added when column is posted online,]

Becca is my neighbor and newly elected State Senator whose weekly column my husband and I always find interesting.  She had not known until recently that Anne Perry had committed murder.  Her column explores how she feels about Perry after finding out.

…Details of their delusions can be found in Parker’s [Perry’s friend] adolescent journal.  But the question persists for me:  Do I believe in rehabilitation and redemption?  If I do, as I have always claimed, then why do I view Anne Perry differently now that I know of her troubled past?  I’ve read her Victorian mysteries for years and always enjoyed them as inconsequential breathers from the dense non-fiction I read.  I’ve joked about some of her writing tropes but still find her characters compelling.  Yet, I feel undeniably uneasy about a convicted murderer as an author.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

The first Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novel.

I read this and wondered why I had reacted so differently.  I went back and located the interview I had read years earlier in the Guardian.

In 1954, Hulme felt as if she had been pushed to the limit. Three days before she took part in the killing of Honora Parker on June 22, her parents announced that they were to divorce – triggered by Hulme having found her mother, Hilda, in bed with a lover. At the same time, her father lost his job and she was to be sent to South Africa to stay with an aunt. The shock to Hulme – who had not been at school because of tuberculosis, from which she had suffered since the age of 13 – was cataclysmic.

She turned to her close friend, Parker, a working-class girl from a humble background. Some felt it was a curious friendship for Hulme, whose family were well to do, her mother glamorous and clever. The two friends believed they could stay together if Pauline’s mother would let her leave New Zealand. Her refusal triggered Parker’s murderous rage and Hulme believed she owed it to her friend to help lure Mrs Parker to a Christchurch park and cosh her with a brick in a stocking.

“I felt I had a debt to repay,” says Perry. “Pauline was the only one who had written to me when I was in hospital, and she threatened to kill herself if I didn’t help. She was vomiting after every meal and losing weight all the time. I am sure now she was bulimic. I really believed she would take her life and I couldn’t face it.”

Hulme served five years at Mt Eden women’s prison in Auckland – “supposedly the toughest in the southern hemisphere,” she says with what sounds like pride.

Yet Perry now calls her time in prison “the best thing that could have happened”. “It was there that I went down on my knees and repented,” she says. “That is how I survived my time while others cracked up. I seemed to be the only one saying, I am guilty and I am where I should be.”

In an interview with Ian Rankin, Perry explains further.

IR: I wondered: at what point does redemption come do you think, I mean at some point during incarceration?

AP: That is a very spiritual question, to which I can only give you my own estimate of the answer. The redemption comes when you no longer wish to be that kind of person. When you understand that… when you see it as ugly, and you understand why it is not what you want to be. Not what you should be, not what you want to be. And that’s the difference. Not because somebody outside is telling you: this is not what you do. But because you, yourself, say: this is not who I want to be.

IR: How do you feel about the fact that society requires people to be locked up, especially at such a young age, that we require what seems to be not redemption so much as a kind of vengeance.

AP: I suppose society does require a certain level of vengeance. It needs to be not only done but seen to be done because it is supposed to be enough to prevent other people wanting to do the same. I think it would have been the worst thing that could ever have happened to me in my life if somehow they had said: “Well, look. You know, you were under medical treatment. These are mind altering drugs. I am sure you are not really wicked. You go ahead and forget about it.” I think that would have been totally destructive to me.

IR: How important was the punishment to you?

AP: I feel it is vital. I think until you feel that you have settled the debt, you cannot move on. It is a bit like trying to walk with an open parachute open behind you. By paying, you cut the strings and then you can move on. You can allow yourself to move on. I can say it and look you in the eye, because I can say: Yes, I have dealt with it. I believe that I have paid. I believe that I have been forgiven where it matters. And it now for me no longer exists. I can move on and be the best person I am capable of being. But I think that is true of everybody. As long as you don’t say: “somehow it wasn’t really me, it was that person and somehow it didn’t matter and I don’t need to pay.”

I think this explains why she writes novels about crime and punishment.  I can read Perry’s books without thinking of her past because it is her past that allows her to write.

 

 

 

P.D. James, Queen of Crime

My mother introduced me to the mystery novels of P. D. James many years ago when I was a teenager.  James didn’t publish often; she was not a twice a year or even once a year mystery writer.  A new James was the occasion for celebration and we read all of them.  I believe there were 18.  The New York Times obituary outlines the story of her life.

She was born Phyllis Dorothy James on Aug. 3, 1920, in Oxford, the eldest of three children of Dorothy and Sidney James, a civil servant who did not believe in inflicting too much education on his daughter. The family settled in Cambridge when she was 11, and before she left the Cambridge High School for Girls, at 16, she already knew that she wanted to be a writer and that mysterious death intrigued her.

“When I first heard that Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall,” she was fond of saying, “I immediately wondered: Did he fall — or was he pushed?” But a marriage to Ernest C. B. White, a medical student, and World War II halted her plans for a writing career.

P.D. James, in 2010.

P.D. James, in 2010.

James was a hospital administrator for a number of years and used hospitals as the setting for some of her early novels.  But

[a]fter the death of her husband at 44, in 1964, Ms. James took a Civil Service examination and became an administrator in the forensic science and criminal law divisions of the Department of Home Affairs. The work would supply her novels with the realistic procedural detail on which she prided herself.

Although she rarely describes actual murder, the dead bodies in her novels always make an indelible impression on the innocent bystanders who chance upon them. “To many of them, it’s a really appalling and dreadful discovery,” Ms. James said. “I think that the reader should share that horror and that shock, so I make the descriptions just as realistic as I can.”

Her primary detective, Adam Dalgleish, was designed to be the anti-Peter Wimsey.

Her intention with Dalgliesh, she told the British critic and writer Julian Symons in 1986, was to create a detective “quite unlike the Lord Peter Wimsey kind of gentlemanly amateur” popularized by Dorothy L. Sayers. Ms. James envisioned a realistic cop as her protagonist, a dedicated and skilled professional, and yet “something more than just a policeman, you see, a complex and sensitive human being,” she said.

A few months back, James was featured on the Barnes and Noble mystery section as one of the authors who discussed their favorite books.  It was interesting that she picked Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair and Dorothy Sayer’s Murder Must Advertise, two of the more complicated   stories by each author.  Also on the list were a book by Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine (A Fatal Inversion), the first Ian Rankin (The Complaints), and Sue Grafton’s V is for Vengance.  I have to confess that I don’t care all that much for Rendell, but I liked the other books on her list, so maybe I’ll try again.  There was one book, Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, I had never heard of before.  On James’ recommendation, I ordered it and have it on my pile to read.

It is sad that there will be no more books by P.D. James, but I will spend them this next year re-reading and savoring all that she had left us.

Photograph:  Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Remembering Poe

Edgar Allan Poe died today, October 7, 1849 in Baltimore.  He was 40 years old.

My first introduction to Poe was “The Tell- Tale Heart”.  I think was in maybe the 5th or 6th grade when the teacher read it to us.  I found it frightening.  And then there were his other storied like “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his very bad poetry.  I had always thought he was from Richmond – or maybe Baltimore, but have since learned he actually lived all over and went to school both at the University of Virginia and West Point.  After I moved to Boston, I found out that he had been born there.  I went looking for the tiny plaque in an alley honoring him.  There was also a reference in one of Linda Fairstein’s mysteries to the Poe cabin in the Bronx which is how I first learned of his New York connection.  So lots and lots of places claim him and there are at least three Poe historical sites:  Richmond, Baltimore and the Bronx.

But he and Boston had a terrible relationship.  According to the New York Times

Poe sneered at the city’s luminaries. Riffing off the Frog Pond in the Boston Common, Poe called the local swells “Frogpondians,” their moralistic works sounding like the croaking of so many frogs. As for residents here, they “have no soul,” he said. “Bostonians are well bred — as very dull persons very generally are.”

The Boston Globe explains that his relationship with “…with the city’s literary elite was famously tense…”

But now Boston has joined Baltimore, Richmond and New York with a tribute to Poe.  The New York Times quotes Boston’s Mayor

“It’s time that Poe, whose hometown was Boston, be honored for his connection to the city,” Mayor Martin J. Walsh said.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The bronze Edgar Allen Poe’s briefcase overflows with the symbols that made him famous: a larger-than-life raven, and a human heart.

The Times describes the statue

Now the city is burying the hatchet, and not in Poe’s back. On Sunday [October 5], civic and literary folk, including Robert Pinsky, a former national poet laureate who teaches at Boston University, are to unveil a bronze statue of Poe near the Boston Common and, they hope, usher in an era of reconciliation.

The statue captures the writer in a purposeful stride, his cape billowing out to his left. On his right is an outsize raven, uncoiling for flight. Poe is toting a suitcase so overpacked that various manuscripts — “The Tell-Tale Heart” among them — are spilling out. Also popping out is a heart.

He is heading toward the house, two blocks away, where his parents lived around the time he was born, though it has since been razed.

So the only person to write a poem that became the name of a football team, the Baltimore Ravens, has finally been honored in the city of his birth.  I wonder what Poe would make of it.

Photograph:  DINA RUDICK/GLOBE STAFF

 

 

 

Reading series mysteries

The last few months have not been kind to my ability to blog.  Between wrist tendonitis and cataract surgery on both eyes, I haven’t been able to do much on the computer.  But now my wrist is settling down and my eyes are staring to clear.  I had intended to start back slowly but I seem to have posted quite a bit this past week.

During my absence from the computer, I have been able to read.  My big accomplishment:  reading the entire Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series by Anne Perry.  I had read a number of them before but realized that I had skipped most of the ones in the middle.  There are 26.  Thomas Pitt begins as a detective with what became the Metropolitan Police in late 19th century London.  He is the son of a gamekeeper who was educated with the master’s son – a key to his rise.  Charlotte is the middle daughter of an upper class, but not aristocratic family.  Their marriage is gradually accepted by her family. (I have to say that I never quite understood why she never had even a small dowry, but I may have missed the explanation.)  Her sister, Emily,  marries up to the aristocracy and then when her husband dies, a man who gets elected to Parliament.  Emily’s great aunt from her first marriage plays a major role in most of the books.  I’m sure you have guessed by now that these are mystery novels. The genius of Anne Perry is her ability to capture the time while often centering her stories around issues that are still current like rape and political corruption.

Having finished up with Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, I began thinking of the other series I’ve followed over the years beginning with the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout and Dorothy Sayers’ Peter Wimsey series and moving on to the Margaret Maron’s Deborah Knott, Victoria Thompson’s Sarah Brandt and, of course, J.D. Robb and the “in death” books.  What happens to me is that the characters become familiar friends.  One gets involved in their lives and is sad when they go away because the author dies or simply, like Sayers, decides not to write any more.  One watches children grow up and wonders how the relationship between Deborah and her stepson, Cal will evolve.  Will Eve Dallas ever have children?  How will Sarah’s relationship with Malloy impact his mother?  And people follow different writers and characters.  But some series get read primarily for the mystery.   I read all of P.D. James, but not necessarily because I wanted to know what would happen next to Adam Dalgliesh although his development has been fun to follow and it is   interesting that James has written the best follow-up to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”: “Death Comes to Pemberly”,

So the question becomes whether or not to read anything by an author, authorized or not, who picks up the series.  I’ve never read any of the “new” Nero Wolfe’s or the continuation of Robert Parker’s Spencer series, but I have read all three of Jill Patton Walsh’s Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane add-on’s.  I had just finished writing that sentence and stopped to think more about where this was going when Margaret Maron herself posted on Facebook.

I think that several no-longer-with-us writers have had their series continued by others with decent success — Sherlock Holmes and  Jill Paton Walsh’s entries in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey saga come to mind. But rather than write more Peter-Harriet stories, I really wish that she or someone competent would use the Wimsey sons. If you recall, there were 3 of them.  Surely at least one of them inherited his parents’ detecting bug?
What series would you love to see done if you could be sure they’d be done well?
I don’t know if anyone else could do what Margaret Maron does, but if she suddenly stopped writing, I would want to see more of Deborah Knott and her family.
In the meanwhile I’ve ordered the new J.D. Robb and am looking forward to the spring and summer with a new Anne Perry as well as a new Peter Wimsey by Jill Patton Walsh.

Re-reading “The Daughter of Time” or was Richard III a murderer?

"The Princes in the Tower"

“The Princes in the Tower” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a re-reader.  If I like a book, particularly a mystery, I will read it again.  Josephine Tey is a writer I first read in high school when I was introduced by my mother.  I remember thinking at the time that ‘The Daughter of Time” was one of her least interesting stories.  After all, Alan Grant is in a hospital bed reading books about Richard III and sending researcher Brent Carradine to look for answers about someone who died 400 years before.  I believed in the Thomas More/William Shakespeare version of Richard.  I was probably fourteen.  But since then, I have re-read it several times and since the discovery of Richard’s bones have done so again.

It is a very carefully constructed guide to how to conduct an investigation.  Grant starts out with one of his nurses’ history books from school and moves on to more complete histories of Richard and England.  He finds out that Thomas More, although written as if he were a witness to the events surrounding the princes in the tower, was actually between 5 and 8 years old.  Grant and Carradine go to original sources for answers to the kinds of questions anyone conducting an investigation would ask.  Who benefits?  What were people saying at the time?  Where were the relevant people at the time of the alleged murders?  Who was still alive after Richard died?

There are many, like Winston Churchill, who are unconvinced by Tey.  Thomas B. Costain presented much the same evidence as Tey in his history, “The Last Plantagenets.”

Many who believe that Richard was guilty believe that Richard somehow stole the throne.  Edward IV had died, his oldest son was very young and Richard was to be Regent.  Instead, Richard learned that his brother’s marriage was, as they said, irregular.  Parliament declared a Titulus Regulus making Edward’s son ineligible for the throne and Richard became King.

There is no question that Richard had been an excellent administrator of north England, including York.  At the end of the book, Grant lays out his case.

In the matter of the presumed crime:

(a)  He did not stand to benefit; there were nine other heirs to the house of York, including three males;

(b)  There is no contemporary accusation.

(c)  The boys’ mother continued on friendly terms with him until his death, and her daughters attended Palace festivities.

(d)  He showed no fear of the other heirs of York, providing generously for their upkeep and granting all of them their royal state.

(e)  His own right to the crown was unassailable, approved by Act of Parliament and public acclamation; the boys were out of the succession and of no danger to him.

(f)  If he had been nervous about disaffection then the person to have got rid of was not the two boys, but the person who really was next in succession to him:  young Warwick.  Whom he publicly created his heir when his own son died.

And Grant’s case against Henry VII.

(a)  It was of great importance to him that the boys should not continue to live.  By repealing the Act [Titulus Regulus] acknowledging the children’s illegitimacy, he made the elder boy King of England and the youngest boy the next heir.

(b) In the Act which he brought before Parliament for the attainting of richard he accused Richard of the conventional tyranny and cruelty but made no mention of the two young Princes.  The conclusion is that at that time the two boys were alive and their whereabouts known.

(c)  The boys’ mother was deprived of her living and consigned to a nunnery eighteen months after his succession.

(d) He took immediate steps to secure the persons of all the other heirs to the crown, and kept them in close arrest until he could with the minimum of scandal get rid of them.

(e)  He had no right whatever to the throne.  Since the death of Richard, young Warwick was de jure King of England.

I can’t predict whether the discover of Richard’s bones will lead to his rehabilitation as a ruler, but Tey makes an interesting case in his favor.  If you like mysteries or history or both, I recomment “The Daughter of Time.”

Reading Dickens and other stuff

I haven’t written about books for a long time but I am always reading more than one book at a time.  So here is what I’ve been reading the last week or so.

We all know that at Christmas time there are endless versions of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” on television, but when, if ever, was the last time you actually read the book?  I was probably in my early teens when I read it last.  This year we decided to purchase a copy which I just finished reading last week.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It is nicely illustrated by Greg Hildebrant who used as models various friends and relations.

Dickens wrote in his 1843 introduction

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.

I think we should all read it and/or watch our favorite movie version at least once a year.  (Here is one persons opinion of the 10 best television and film versions.)  It can teach us something about tolerance and old fashioned Charity.

One of my retirement projects is trying to figure out what books we actually own.  I had the idea of creating my own database and then stumbled upon LibraryThing.  It is a nifty online way to not only keep track of your books, but also to share with others.  You can post reviews, read what others think, and there are a lot of queries and statistics to play with.  Turns out to be a lot of fun in addition to being useful and easy to use.  You can also request free books in exchange for a review.  The book I reviewed for December was “Crime of Privilege” by Walter Walker.  It is a mystery which will be released soon.  Do not spend your money on this thinly disguised Kennedy family mash-up.  So far there is one other review posted and it is not good either.

Crime of Privilege: A Novel by Walter Walker

I am about half way through John Barry’s book about Roger Williams and separation of church and state.  It is fascinating history beginning in England and James’ efforts to make the Church of England more orthodox and more Catholic.

Roger Williams and the Creation of the…

Highly recommended.

And in between Barry, I am re-reading some Georgette Heyer.  Did you know there is a third book to what is called the Alastair trilogy? (“These Old Shades”, “Devil’s Cub” and “The Infamous Army”)  I’ve just ordered volume 3.  Heyer is still readable and fun.  Her stories remind me of  film comedies where people get into impossible situations but somehow all turns out right.  I have fun imagining them as movies.

It is getting cold out so pick up a book and curl up and read.

P.D. James and Jane Austen

I need to explain that I re-read Pride and Prejudice at least once a year.  I loved the early PBS version of the book, but that has been replaced now by the Colin Frith version which I own on DVD.  I’ve also dipped into some of the sequels and expansions (most are horrible) to feed by habit.  

P.D. James is one of my favorite writers.  I have read all of her mysteries. One of my favorites is An Unsuitable Job for a Woman which introduced the young Cordelia Gray.  Adam Dalgleish her primary detective is not only a police inspector, but also a published poet.  Her books are literate and the mysteries complex and interesting.  So when I saw that James had written a kind of sequel to Pride and Prejudice I ordered a copy immediately.  And I was not disappointed.

Death Comes to Pemberley

With her usual elegance, James tells brings us to the Darcy estate six years after Elizabeth Bennet married her Mr. Darcy.  They now have 2 children and Elizabeth has clearly taken hold as mistress of Pemberley.  All the other characters make their appearance including George Wickham who is still a wild neer do well and his wife, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia is still tends to hysteria.  They are at the heart of the mystery.

Liesal Schillinger in her review last week in the New York Times book review writes

James clearly understands that many readers feel as close an attachment to Austen’s characters as they do to their own relatives and friends. So she cannily begins by furnishing answers to the natural question: “Where are they now?”

How right it feels to learn, as James informs us, that Bingley and Jane moved away from Netherfield soon after their marriage, wanting to put distance between them and the ever-querulous Mrs. Bennet at Longbourn. What a delight to read that tone-deaf, humorless Mary Bennet has married a “thin, melancholy” rector, “given to preaching sermons of inordinate length and complicated theology.” How apt that the evil seducer George Wickham, after marrying Lizzy’s frivolous sister Lydia, worked as a secretary for the foppish baronet Sir Walter Elliot (a character from Austen’s novel “Persuasion”) until Lydia’s “open flirtation” with the baronet and Wickham’s simpering attempts to ingratiate himself with his employer’s daughter met “finally with disgust.” And what a treat to see Bingley’s snobbish sisters, Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, get their comeuppance — and Harriet Smith (of “Emma”) her reward.

Above all, James will delight Austen’s devoted fans by showing Darcy and Lizzy to be (if anything) more in love and better matched than anyone might have hoped, six years into their marriage.

If you love Austen and you love James or you love one or the other, I think you will love this book.

(Illustration by Skip Sterling)