Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century by Peter Graham: the first time I have truly felt guilty about a guilty pleasure.
You may already know this: Anne Perry, a bestselling mystery novelist, was once a girl named Juliet, and a murderess herself. If you have seen Heavenly Creatures, you know the crazy story of Juliet and Pauline already: two teenage girls in 1950s New Zealand who were obsessed with each other worked themselves into a frenzy when they suspected their parents would separate them, and beat one’s mum to death with half a brick in a sock. They were caught almost immediately and the subsequent trial and news coverage were titillating for all the same reasons we watch SVU today: teenagers! lesbianism! bad poetry! diaries! secret marriages! And this book, like good true crime, holds many of those same SVU pleasures by recounting it all.
The book’s outlining of their friendship and obsession is steady and frightening. I don’t think I’ve ever been obsessed with a friend in the way that Pauline and Juliet were obsessed with each other, and much of the trial focused on just exactly what type of mental illness they had, so I guess most people can’t understand that element and need it to be diagnosible. But I do remember what it feels like to feel completely disconnected from the adult world while longing desperately to join it, so I found it hard to write Juliet and Pauline off as complete nutjobs. Their conviction and imprisonment seemed just, but as I read through the trial I hoped they might be able to restart their lives quietly, even though I knew that Anne Perry would eventually become famous.
Unfortunately, the story becomes even more chilling after their release as it follows them from prison to the present-day, and this is where my love for Anne Perry became uncomfortable. Even accounting for the natural propensity of the true crime writer for dramatics (Graham resists better than most, but still), I have to say: she does not seem like a good person. Pauline, whose mother is the one who was killed, seems like a sad, desperate person. Juliet/Anne just creeps me out. And despite having had a female life partner for decades now, she still denies she is a lesbian, possibly because she converted to Mormonism. Which I guess could be true, but just seems really sad. I dunno.
These last few chapters are much scarier than the ones in which the girls plan and execute a brutal matricide. One’s penchant for redemption is denied. And my habit of reading each of Anne Perry’s books and supporting her wildly successful career for years now makes me a little queasy, in part because of her very own prose.
One of the only flaws of this book is Graham’s short deconstruction of the text of Perry’s first book, The Cater Street Hangman. I hate to spoil it for you, but it was published in the late 70s, so you’ve had your chance—the serial killer turns out to be a vicar’s wife who is a repressed lesbian, obsessed with sin. Any true crime writer would be unable to resist the temptation of comparison.
I re-read it myself yesterday out of curiosity and it did not hold up as well as I’d hoped. A truly absurd amount of clothing descriptions! But the real trouble was that after having read many excerpts of Perry’s adolescent writing in Graham’s book, I could not deny the links between this book and those inventions. In her newer books, she has a very different voice. She has become a very strong writer over the years. But the echoes of Juliet Hulme are distinct in Cater Street. I have known about Anne Perry’s past for a few years (as this book outlines, she was discovered in 1994, and hadn’t taken many pains to stay hidden) but have always compartmentalized those actions as Juliet’s, and the books as Anne’s. I’m not sure I can do that anymore.
Speaking of temptation, though—ask me again how I feel when her next book comes out.