Anne Perry: Crime Writer With Her Own Dark Tale

From a New York Times obit by Anita Gates headlined “Anne Perry, Crime Writer With Her Own Dark Tale, Dies at 84”:

Anne Perry, the prolific London-born author of historical and socially conscious crime fiction who in her teens served five years in prison for murder, a sordid past that came to wide attention with the release of a 1994 movie, died in Los Angeles.

Ms. Perry was a successful author long before that noisy skeleton in her closet was revealed.

“Give her a good murder and a shameful social evil, and Anne Perry can write a Victorian mystery that would make Dickens’s eyes pop,” Marilyn Stasio wrote, reviewing Ms. Perry’s “Highgate Rise” (1991), which centered on the death by arson of a social reformer who was also a doctor’s wife.

Ms. Perry’s books, including the Thomas Pitt and William Monk series of historical mysteries, have sold more than 26 million copies. In 1998, when The Times of London named its 100 Masters of Crime of the past century, there she was on the list alongside Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett and Arthur Conan Doyle.

“Heroes,” set in the trenches of World War I, won the 2000 Edgar Allan Poe Award for best short story. In 2013 and 2020, she was a guest of honor at Bouchercon, the international convention of mystery writers and fans.

But she was equally famous — or close to it — because of a grisly 1954 homicide in New Zealand: the bludgeoning to death of her best friend’s mother.

Juliet Marion Hulme, later known as Anne Perry, was born in London, the elder of two children of Dr. Henry Rainsford Hulme, a physicist who was later a leader in Britain’s atomic weapons research, and Hilda Marion (Reavley) Hulme, a marriage counselor. When Juliet was 6, she developed tuberculosis, and at age 8 — after World War II had ended — she was sent to live with a foster family in the Bahamas for her health.

At 13, she rejoined her own family, who had moved to Christchurch, New Zealand, for her father’s new job as rector of Cambridge University College. At Christchurch Girls’ High School, Juliet and her new best friend, Pauline Yvonne Parker, bonded, invented an elaborate medieval-like fantasy world and worshiped celebrities, especially the opera singer Mario Lanza, as saints.

When Juliet’s parents decided to divorce and leave New Zealand, the girls came up with a solution to avoid being separated: murder Pauline’s mother.

In Victoria Park, in Christchurch, the girls — Pauline was 16, Juliet was 15 — struck Honorah Parker in the head repeatedly with half a brick wrapped in a stocking. The trial was a sensation, much of it focusing on Juliet and Pauline’s absorption with each other and their fantasies about becoming famous novelists.

Both young women were convicted of murder, and after five years behind bars (in separate prisons) they were given new identities and instructed never to meet again. If they violated that order, they were warned, they would return to prison and serve life sentences.

Both of Juliet’s parents remarried; Ms. Perry’s new surname came from her stepfather.

Ms. Perry’s criminal past was revealed publicly in the summer of 1994 when word leaked out that Peter Jackson would recount her story in his forthcoming film “Heavenly Creatures,” starring Kate Winslet as the smugly confident teenage girl who later changed her name to Anne Perry and Melanie Lynskey as her sullen and insecure classmate Pauline. The film was released in November.

The headline on the film review in The Times was “Fantasies and a Love That Led to Murder.” Newspaper reports at the time hinted at a lesbian romance between the two friends, employing the same discreet tone as Juliet’s father in the film, when he expressed concern about “a rather unwholesome attachment.” Ms. Perry told The New Zealand Herald in 2006 that the relationship had been obsessive but not sexual.

Juliet had always wanted to be a writer, but she spent most of her first two decades as Anne working in less creative fields — in retail sales and clerical work and as a flight attendant, a limousine dispatcher and an insurance underwriter.

Her first novel, “The Cater Street Hangman,” was published in 1979. Kirkus Reviews called it “a hearty mystery/romance” and concluded that “Perry’s easy, irreverent Victoriana is the real attraction here.”

The book, set in 1881, introduced William Pitt, a police officer in Victorian London, and his future wife, the aristocratic but unconventional Charlotte Ellison. They meet when an Ellison housemaid is the victim of a serial strangler.
“I don’t know how many books I wrote before that,” Ms. Perry wrote on her website.

There were more than 30 books in the William and Charlotte Pitt series, ending with “Murder on the Serpentine” (2016), about the mysterious death of an old friend of Queen Victoria’s. When the series concluded, Ms. Perry began writing about Daniel Pitt, their son. Her final book in that series, “The Fourth Enemy,” was published last year.

Her most recent novel is “The Traitor Among Us,” the fifth installment in her Elena Standish series, begun in 2019, centering on a female English detective. It is to be published in September.

In her fiction, Ms. Perry wanted to concentrate less on the procedural details of detective work and more on “the pressure of criminal investigations” on the people involved, including the changes it caused in relationships, she told Publishers Weekly in 2014. She focused on one question in her stories, she said: “How well do I really know anyone else?”

In 1990, Ms. Perry introduced a new detective, William Monk, who lived during an earlier period in Victorian London and dealt with a challenging career complication: Monk loses his memory after a carriage accident. Only Hester Latterly, a Crimean War nurse who later becomes his wife, knows about his amnesia, and she covers for him.

Ms. Perry also wrote a Christmas novella every year, from “A Christmas Journey” (2003) to “A Christmas Legacy” (2021). Her other work included five novellas set during World War I, four young-adult novels, two faith-inspired fantasy novels (she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an adult while living for several years in the United States) and short stories.

She never married. In “Interiors,” a 2009 documentary about Ms. Perry made in Germany, friends said her romantic relationships would end because she didn’t know what to do about her long-held secret.

A 2012 biography, “The Search for Anne Perry,” by Joanne Drayton, was, like many of Ms. Perry’s own books, a best seller.

With hopes to be closer to the film and television industry, Ms. Perry moved to the West Hollywood section of Los Angeles from Portmahomack, a fishing village in northern Scotland, in 2017. “Interiors” showed her at home in northern Scotland, near Inverness, a 70-ish red-haired woman with eyeglasses who wrote her novels by hand while relaxing in a leather recliner with a gigantic throw pillow on her lap. She was the center of a mostly gray-haired coterie, including a secretary, who typed the manuscripts; her brother, a retired doctor who served as a research assistant; a best friend and neighbor, whose husband was Ms. Perry’s driver; and a playful terrier named Snoot (named for a dog in the Monk novels).

Once her murder conviction was revealed, Ms. Perry did not shy away from acknowledging her guilt. She excused herself only by saying that she had been afraid that if she did not go along with the murder plan, her distraught friend might kill herself.

Ms. Perry’s regret did not extend to self-condemnation, however.

“In a sense it’s not a matter — at the end — of judging,” she said in the documentary. “I did this much good and that much bad. Which is the greater?”

“It’s in the end, Who am I? Am I somebody that can be trusted? Am I someone that is compassionate, gentle, patient, strong?” She mentioned other traits: bravery, honesty, caring. “If you’re that kind of person — if you’ve done something bad in the past, you’ve obviously changed.”

She concluded, “It’s who you are when time’s up that matters.”

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