A little while ago, I began reading the William Monk series of books by Anne Perry. They're murder mysteries set in mid-Victorian England and I've been enjoying them a great deal. I started the fourth in the series yesterday and I was about half way through when I got it into my head to look the author up on Google. It's not something I do as a rule - I'm not fond of shattering illusions - but I'm working my way through the flu at the moment and had a spot of brain madness. Anyway, whatever I expected to discover it most certainly wasn't that Anne Perry is a convicted murderer.
Basically, for those of you who are as much in the dark as I was until last evening, Anne Perry's real name is Juliet Hulme. In 1954 at Victoria Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, at the age of 15 (almost 16 in fact), Juliet Hulme and her best friend Pauline Parker (both pictured above, Hulme's on the right) battered the latter's mother, Honora Parker, to death with a brick in a stocking. It was a brutal, premeditated murder; it took more than forty blows to kill Honora Parker, who was held down by her throat during the girls' attack. Both girls served five years in prison for their crime. Apparently, Perry's past became public knowledge in 1994, shortly before the release of the film about the Parker-Hulme murder case, Heavenly Creatures, but I'd never heard of Anne Perry until I began reading the William Monk series of books recently, and I had no idea what she'd done until yesterday.
As I mentioned above, I began reading the fourth William Monk book yesterday. It's entitled A Sudden, Fearful Death... and that is exactly what Honora Parker suffered at Anne Perry's hands. I was stunned. I found myself torn between continuing reading and stopping there and then. Would I be able to read about the fictional murders Anne Perry creates without thinking about the factual one she perpetrated, especially given the nature of it?
The researcher in me concluded that I needed more information about Perry before deciding what to do, preferably from the horse's mouth. I came across Anne Perry: Interiors, a seventy minute long documentary made in 2009 by Dana Linkiewicz, which Perry actively participated in. You can rent it from Youtube for a mere £1.99.
Perry, a born-again Mormon, now lives a fairly reclusive (though extremely comfortable) life in the Scottish village of Portmahomack, surrounded by a close circle of friends of the same faith, who've all known about the murder for some time. But 'murder' is a word that's very much avoided in the documentary, as is any direct reference to her victim by name. Perry's current best friend, Meg Macdonald, refers to the murder as 'the thing that happened'. Apparently, her friends skirt around the issue; they don't want her to talk about it. Perry feels that this is because they know it's painful and don't want her to be hurt. Strangers do want to talk about it, though, and Perry says that she can't afford to lose her temper and say to them 'mind your own business... what the hell is it to do with you?'
Well, what's the world coming to, I say, when a gal can't brutally murder someone in cold blood without having people think they can poke their noses into things?
'Occasionally you get nasty letters,' she goes on, 'poor little people who have nothing else to do but pick on somebody... but write nasty letters. My friends here, on the whole, will protect me from it'.
Remind me, who was the victim of the crime... the murdered or the murderer?
So, how does she feel about what she did? 'I did something stupid,' she says, 'which I've regretted for the rest of my life'. Stupid is a strange word to use, and writers are very particular about words. We have a tendency to say what we mean and mean what we say. She meant stupid. Not evil. Not horrendous. Stupid.
Early in the documentary, Perry explains how unimpressed she is with people who cry when they testify in church; she wasn't brought up in an environment where people went in for great shows of emotion. When she sees people cry like that, she wants to tell them to 'get a grip'. Then, right at the end of the film, we see Perry in tears as she offers a brief explanation of her motives for taking part in 'the thing that happened' to the woman she does not name. And I had the distinct desire to say 'get a grip'.
Ultimately, I came away from watching the documentary with the distinct feeling that Anne Perry is only capable of viewing the murder of Honora Parker (she did have a name) from her own perspective, in relation to how it affects her. In an article in the Guardian in 2003, referring to her feelings about having been outed Perry said 'it seemed so unfair... Everything I had worked to achieve as a decent member of society was threatened'. But at least Perry was given the chance to achieve something; Honora Parker wasn't so fortunate.
In an interview with Ian Rankin in 2002, Perry said, when talking about the murder, 'I think until you feel that you have settled the debt you can't move on'. She added: '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'.
Unfortunately, neither does Honora Parker. But she, again, seems to take a back seat for Perry, who is concerned about her own redemption and the fact that she's moved on and made a life for herself as an extremely successful writer of books about murder.
And that brings me back to the question I asked originally: can I go on reading about the fictional murders she creates without thinking about the factual one she perpetrated?
Can a work of fiction stand alone, or is its creator so much a part of it that the two can't be separated? If it's simply a matter of disliking a writer/artist/actor etc., then I believe the two can be yanked apart. I love Morse and Lewis but dislike Colin Dexter... But then, he never killed anyone (aside from Morse, that is). Things aren't so clear cut when it goes beyond mere dislike. I can't stand to watch Mel Gibson on screen these days. And I wouldn't watch a Roman Polanski film if you paid me.
It's not that I am incapable of reading a book written by a murderer, repentant or not. I'm reading Mein Kampf at the moment. But I'm not doing that for pleasure. And that's the problem... we read fiction for the enjoyment of it. Can I enjoy reading Anne Perry's books now? In all honesty, had I known about her background and watched Anne Perry: Interiors prior to reading the first Monk book, I'd never have read it at all. But I didn't know, and I've become attached to her characters. I'm half way through the fourth book and there's a crime that's yet to be solved... a murderer who's yet to be brought to justice. And here I am... in limbo.