On June 22, 1954, on a woodland path outside Christchurch, New Zealand, two teenage girls bludgeoned an unsuspecting woman to death. It was shortly after teatime when Honorah Parker was held down and struck with a brick. Honorah’s killers were her daughter, Pauline, and Pauline’s best friend, Juliet Hulme — whom the world also knows as the best-selling mystery writer Anne Perry.
The Parker-Hulme murder has been documented and dramatized before, most famously in Peter Jackson’s movie “Heavenly Creatures.” But Peter Graham, a New Zealand crime writer and former barrister, claims that his book “tells the whole story for the first time.” And he may be right. “Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century” is certainly a comprehensive, well-researched examination not only of the crime and its aftermath but also of the killers’ lives, from childhood to the present day.
A concise yet engaging writer, Graham begins by asking, “What makes one act of murder . . . fascinating, where another is merely sordid or banal?” Sex is an obvious answer, but Graham analyzes this aspect of the case with admirable coolness, resisting the temptation to identify lesbianism — or any other element in the drama — as the prime motivation. Like a punctilious courtroom lawyer, he presents the facts and his analysis, leaving the final verdict to the reader.
There is nothing dry, however, about Graham’s account, though it begins sedately: “Dr. Henry Hulme was at the wheel of his Jaguar in front of the carriage-porch, warming the engine while he waited for his daughter.” The details are oddly disorienting. An oddly antique “carriage-porch,” a Jaguar-driving academic. Throughout Graham’s narrative, Christchurch in 1954 materializes as alien yet weirdly familiar: tea-and-crumpets England grafted onto the opposite end of the globe. This is, after all, the city whose founders strove, according to one 19th-century observer, “to create pure types of English homes.”
And the Hulmes’ residence was, at first glance, just such a place. Henry Hulme, a former Cambridge scholar and renowned nuclear physicist, was the rector of Canterbury College in Christchurch; Hilda Hulme was well bred, if theatrical; their children, Juliet and Jonty, were equally bright and beautiful. Juliet’s childhood was odd, however, even by wartime standards. Evacuated from London during the Blitz, she developed pneumonia and was sent, at age 8, to live abroad with family friends, before being reunited with her parents in 1948. Seven years later, Juliet contracted tuberculosis and spent several months in a New Zealand sanatorium. By then she had formed an intense friendship with Pauline, a truculent schoolmate from a working-class family.
It seemed an unlikely alliance. Juliet was the golden-haired beauty who treated other girls “with an airy bemused dismissiveness”; Pauline was the dark scowler with the “filthy temper.” But they had in common a disdainful arrogance and a fevered imagination. “How sad it is for other people,” Pauline wrote in her diary in 1952, “that they cannot appreciate our genius.”
That genius found expression in the writing of romance dramas and terrible poetry. Pauline and Juliet swooned over movie stars like James Mason, mimed opera arias and imagined a shared future of glamour and romance. Their diary entries also described blissful nights during which they reenacted love scenes from Hollywood movies. All of which seems quaint, until the picture darkens.
“Why could Mother not die?” Pauline wrote in January 1954 when Honorah briefly forbade visits to the Hulme house. The thought became intention when Honorah ruled that Pauline could not accompany the Hulmes when they left New Zealand (Henry Hulme having resigned his Canterbury College post). “Next time I write in this diary Mother will be dead,” Pauline wrote the night before the murder. “How odd yet how pleasing.” Juliet would bring along the brick.
The murder, dispassionately reported, is sickening, while the police investigation, trial and subsequent imprisonment are engrossing not only in their quotidian detail but also in what they reveal about 1950s assumptions regarding social class, sexuality and psychology. Family secrets — the affair in which Hilda was involved, the fact that the Parkers were not legally married — are exposed, but it is Graham’s description of ordinary lives, particularly those of Pauline’s family, that add depth and humanity to this story. His portraits of Anne Perry and Pauline Parker today are similarly deft.
But the most telling detail in this engrossing book may be the one that is missing. Among the photographs included, there is none of the murdered woman. When Anne Perry was asked in 2006 if she ever thinks of Honorah Parker, she replied, “No. She was somebody I barely knew.”
Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.
ANNE PERRY AND THE MURDER OF THE CENTURY
By Peter Graham
Skyhorse. 341 pp. $24.95