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.
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.