Book Review: The Search for Anne Perry

By Michael Larsen

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The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton
HarperCollins $44.99

Book cover of The Search for Anne Perry. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of The Search for Anne Perry. Photo / Supplied

It was Peter Jackson's fault really. If he hadn't made Heavenly Creatures in 1994, Anne Perry might have safely lived out her life in the hamlet of Portmahomack in northern Scotland, known only as a reclusive but prolific and successful crime writer. By unearthing a crime from 40 years before, he shone the light on enough information that a journalist followed the trail to Perry's London publishers and announced, to an initially incredulous literary agent, that Anne Perry was, in fact, Juliet Hulme.

Hulme, as most New Zealanders know, with her friend Pauline Parker, bludgeoned Parker's mother to death with a brick in Christchurch's Victoria Park. Once that particular genie was out of the bottle, there was no squashing it back in.

Drayton approaches this life through talking to an extensive list of those closest to Perry, a thorough analysis of Perry's prodigious output and, although Drayton only reveals this at the very end, via interviewing Perry directly. She sculpts this woman's remarkable story in a way that communicates a distance from biographer and subject, casting Drayton as reporter rather than direct interpreter.

Despite this, she makes it clear throughout the telling that she is firmly in the "forgive and forget" camp. Drayton quotes inches of press adulation of Perry's work and delivers conversations from agents and publishers who find her warm, intelligent, likeable, slightly homely. Is Drayton trying to make us forget that Perry, as Hulme, had swung the brick and delivered some of the fearsome blows?

Perry deserves her literary success. She has toiled assiduously. Writing, if not a direct salvation, was the path to that place (as was her Mormon faith, with its tenets of redemption through repentance). As Robert McCrum, granted a rare interview, said: "She continues to write, obsessively, perhaps in the hope that she can somehow bury her terrible past in a mountain of fiction."

It is a mountain of work and, if nothing else, this is a wonderful lesson in the pitfalls inherent in trying to get published, albeit from a pre-internet era. The world of agents and publishers, the graft, the letters of rejection, the endless editing, the threats to artistic independence and credibility, all are thoroughly documented. The problem though, is, if Anne Perry hadn't once been Juliet Hulme, would her work make her worthy of such a detailed biography?

Certainly some of the comparisons drawn between Perry's life and subsequent moral struggle and the similar paths of her characters, are astutely relayed. That said, with such an output to consider, some of the book synopses seem rushed, disjointed, as if by committing to outlining a huge chunk of Perry's output, Drayton has created a rod for her own back, a task she must obstinately see through.

Perhaps not every single book is reflective of Perry's feelings about the murder and creating a new life, of moral choices, and good and bad, and forgiveness and redemption.

Maybe some of them are exactly what they appear to be: cleverly crafted,
intelligent Victorian whodunnits.

Ultimately, this important book is revelatory, insightful, wonderfully researched and powerfully written. But it feels incomplete, at times - interesting insights show up and Drayton fails or refuses to develop them further. Not only is this frustrating (in a life of 70 years we get a single paragraph about her relationships with men), it is dangerous ground for a biography. I want reportage, not censored viewing.

A dozen pages from the end, Drayton reproduces an email she sent Perry's agent in 2010, confirming her contract to write the biography and hoping for Perry's co-operation. It is very telling; in fact it directly states the approach she has taken to the project:

"It's time to move out of the 1950s, the details of which have been frozen in time and ground over long enough. In today's context this is punitive and embarrassing. Anne Perry's life story needs to grow, to leave behind the terrible mistake of a young teenager ... "

You may ask, as I did, is that decision, to "leave behind the terrible mistake", one for Drayton to take? It also shows her bias - she sympathises with Perry, and clearly believes that she should be allowed to live her life celebrating her success as a novelist and not forever live in the shadow of an act she committed half a century ago, no matter how gruesome that act may be.

The irony is, of course, that the release of this book will only help to further compromise the freedom she so desperately wants for Perry. Because, no matter how much she or anyone else champions Perry's literary output, she is forever condemned to be judged by that act. No biography, no matter how hagiographical, will change that fact.

Is this fair? Probably not. At least, though, Drayton can be satisfied her extensive research and detailed uncovering of this, until now, reclusive life, offers the public the opportunity to reframe their prejudices and so, at the very least, delivers Perry some hope of shifting the focus, away from the long-distant past and one severe lapse of judgment, to what her life has really been about: a prodigious output of critically and commercially successful work that the literary crime scene is the richer for having.

Michael Larsen is an Auckland writer.

- NZ Herald

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