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Remembering historical crime novelist Anne Perry

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Today we're going to remember Anne Perry, a popular mystery writer who for decades kept secret her participation in a murder as a teenager. Perry died last week at the age of 84. She was the author of several historical mystery series featuring central characters Thomas Pitt and William Monk. In 1998, the Times of London included her on the list of 100 masters of crime of the past century, placing her alongside Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler and Arthur Conan Doyle.

When Anne Perry was 15 years old, she helped her best friend murder that friend's mother. Perry's involvement with the murder would have remained a secret if not for the 1994 Peter Jackson film "Heavenly Creatures," starring a young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey, which dramatized the incident. Journalists tracked Perry down. She had changed her name and moved across the ocean after spending 5 1/2 years in a New Zealand prison. Perry was English but was sent to New Zealand as a girl to recover from tuberculosis.

Terry spoke to Anne Perry in 1994, just months after her story had come out. Terry began with her latest book, her 20th, called "The Sins Of The Wolf." It was the fifth in her series featuring Detective William Monk. When Monk was introduced in the novel "The Face Of A Stranger," he was just regaining consciousness from an accident to find he had totally lost his memory. The most important mystery that faced him was the mystery of his own identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: He's in the position of having to learn who he is by seeing what other people think of him. So he has to see...

ANNE PERRY: Yes.

GROSS: ...Himself through the eyes of others, and that could be a very unnerving experience.

PERRY: Very unnerving indeed because he learns what he has done but not why he has done it. And so often, as one of my mother's favorite sayings, if you just knew the one thing more, you know why somebody does what they do, it all falls into place and becomes not necessarily acceptable but at least understandable because almost everybody who does something - it seemed to them at the time to be the best course for them. And looking back on it, of course, it may be all sorts of other things, but he has to discover himself without knowing why he has done what he has done.

GROSS: What did you imagine it would be like for this detective to learn that he was hated for certain actions that he had taken earlier in life, actions he no longer remembered?

PERRY: I think it'd be very frightening, a sense of being disoriented and thinking, well, how can I be to blame for something that in a sense was not me and yet was me? And you have to come to terms with it. And I think that's something that many people feel when they have grown away from the person that they used to be and yet still have to live with whatever that person has done because we all change as time goes by. And since I now know how old you are, I know that you've had time to understand that that's true.

GROSS: (Laughter) I want to ask you about something that happened in your own life that really not only was quite a revelation about your life but also gives a whole new meaning, in a way, to the fact that you're writing mystery novels. And, you know, I'm thinking obviously about the murder that you were involved with when you were 15 years old.

PERRY: Yes.

GROSS: Before we talk about the murder, tell us something about who you were then. I know you were very sick. You were in a sanitarium.

PERRY: I was for a while. Who I was could be summed up, I suppose, fairly briefly. I was born in London a few months before the war. I spent some time there. We were there through the blitz. We moved around a little bit. I wasn't evacuated. When I was about 6, I became very, very ill indeed, so ill that the doctor told my mother he'd come back and sign the death certificate in the morning because there was nothing else that anybody could do. Obviously, my mother pulled me through the night. But by the time I was about 8, I was ill again, and they said that I wouldn't survive another British winter. So my mother had friends who had friends who lived in the Bahamas, and I was shipped out there. And I stayed with them for a little over a year - six months in the Bahamas, another eight months in New Zealand because that was where they went, which is how I got to New Zealand in the first place.

And I did recover quite a lot. I went back to my own family - no school during this time. I went back to my own family when I was 10, and I went to boarding school, which I hated because I was the different one. And kids torment a different child for whatever reason. And then when I was 13, I became ill again and had to be removed from school, and I never went back. And I spent about three months in a sanitarium, and then I spent the rest of the time recovering at home. But I was still not yet well enough to go back to school. And I seemed to respond to the medication so well that instead of taking me off it after three months, as was usual, they kept me on it for nine months. And that seemed at the time not to have done or had any effect.

And I suppose I was somebody very much out of touch with other people because I had not had very much schooling or much time to spend with other teenagers. I mean, I'd been out of circulation pretty well for two years because at the sanitarium where I was for three months, I wasn't even allowed any visitors, wasn't allowed to read. And that was when Pauline became such a close friend because she was the only person who kept really touch with me apart from my parents, and she wrote to me every day.

GROSS: So Pauline was your best friend. It was her mother...

PERRY: Yes.

GROSS: ...Who was murdered. She wanted to kill her mother.

PERRY: Well, when I was 15, my parents separated and were going to divorce. My father lost his job, and we were about to leave the country. And Pauline was very ill also. I don't know what it was that she suffered from, but she used to throw up regularly, sometimes two or three times a day, and she was losing weight quite dramatically. She was very unhappy. I don't know the reason why, or if I knew at the time, I don't remember now. But she wanted to come with us. And my parents said, of course you may if your parents agree. Well, I suppose pretty naturally her parents did not agree, and she felt that really coming with us was her only way of survival. I mean, I know that sounds melodramatic, but teenagers can be very melodramatic. That was how it seemed to us at the time.

GROSS: So what did she propose to you?

PERRY: Well, I'm not prepared to put words into her mouth. I think that would be most unfair. But let me say that I believed that if I did not join her in this, it would be the end of her life. I don't mean in a sense of happiness. I mean quite literally, physically, that she would die.

GROSS: Do you remember any of the planning of the murder?

PERRY: I really don't. It all happened within a space of either hours or one day or more.

GROSS: What happened?

PERRY: Well, we had intended to make it look like an accident, which was pretty ridiculous. But I don't remember very clearly, I mean, partly because it was 40 years ago and I was in a state of shock and pretty upset and I suppose partly because I have chosen not to remember it.

GROSS: What do you know now about the murder from what you've since read and been told?

PERRY: Well, it really is what I've been told. I haven't read. It was quick. I know that. It was fairly violent. But beyond that, I don't remember very much. I really, truly don't remember.

GROSS: I've read that your friend bludgeoned her mother 45 times with a half-brick that you gave her and that you had admitted to striking at least one blow yourself. Is that - does that seem at all accurate?

PERRY: Forty-five seems a little bit excessive. I don't know. I would have thought half a dozen was more like it, but we were both questioned without any adult present - either a lawyer, a parent or anybody else.

GROSS: Questioned by authorities.

PERRY: By the police. And if 45 was said, I have no idea. I don't think it was said by me.

GROSS: Did you know her mother at all?

PERRY: I'd met her. I mean, I couldn't say I knew her well. I'd met her.

GROSS: Do you remember what you felt either during or after the murder?

PERRY: I don't, no. I was pretty shocked. And don't forget; I'd just discovered that my parents were separating. My father had lost his job. And it seemed to me that my best friend was on the brink of death as well.

GROSS: And you mentioned the medicine you were taking. I think you - you think in retrospect that that medicine might have impaired your judgment.

PERRY: Well, it has been withdrawn because it tends to have that effect. I really can't say how much it affected me. I mean, I'm not competent to say. And there's no good asking me what it is because it's 45, 40 years ago, and, you know, the thing had a name a yard long.

GROSS: How did you explain what happened to yourself and to other people?

PERRY: I don't explain it. I just say I was wrong. I mean, my motivation was that I thought it was one life or another, which may sound daft now, but that's how I felt at the time. I truly believed that - I believed that she would take her own life if I didn't do this. And I just couldn't face the thought that she would take her life, and I would be to blame for that, which - it would have been far better, of course, if I could have found somebody who would have listened, who would have believed and who could have prevented it. But in 24, 48 hours or whatever and my parents distressed with their own situation, I didn't look for anybody. I didn't know where to turn. I didn't have other friends and contacts that I could go to, which doesn't make it right, but that was how it seemed to me at the time.

GROSS: Did your family stick with you during the trial?

PERRY: Oh, yes. But don't forget; at 15, you're not allowed to plead anyway. So none of this came out then because you don't get to say anything at all.

GROSS: So you didn't have to talk at the trial at all.

PERRY: You're not allowed to.

GROSS: Was that a relief that you didn't have to speak, or did you want to get...

PERRY: No.

GROSS: ...Up there and try to explain yourself?

PERRY: I would love to have been able to explain, no, it was not the way that they said 'cause they said all sorts of crazy things.

GROSS: Like what?

PERRY: Well, Pauline kept a diary. And as you do in America, refer to the toilet as the John, in her family, it was referred to as George. You know, you'd say, excuse me; I've just got to go and see George if you wanted to go to the toilet. And she would make notes at - if she'd had to get up during the night and say, I had to go and see George. And they made an affair out of that - I mean, a love affair.

GROSS: Wow.

PERRY: And I wanted to say, look just a minute. She means she went to the toilet. But, you know, you can't say anything. And the whole thing became absurd, as if we were out with strings of men. We did once get up in the night and go out on a bike ride to the beach and have a swim, just the two of us. But when you can't say anything, they can say anything they wish about you, and you have no opportunity to rebut it or to give the very obvious and very simple explanation.

GROSS: Well, could you have told your lawyer?

PERRY: I don't remember having much access to him, honestly. And anyway, they were trying to make the defense of insanity. So I presume they wanted to make us seem as crazy as possible.

GROSS: Your lawyer wanted to present you insane.

PERRY: That was the defense, insanity, which didn't work. I mean, we were totally sane, and we were found to be so.

GROSS: You know, how did you feel about somebody pleading that you were insane?

PERRY: Horrible, absolutely terrible. But that was considered to be the best legal advice at the time, added to which, of course, now the trial names would be suppressed. And it would be held - we use the term in camera. I'm not sure what term you use. But at least, you know, as a juvenile, it would not be given full rein in the press. But then it was absolutely full rein. It was a full adult trial.

BIANCULLI: Anne Perry speaking to Terry Gross in 1994 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET'S "THE DREAM DETECTIVE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1994 interview with author Anne Perry. The writer of popular historical mystery novels died last week at age 84. For decades, she kept secret that she was one of the teenage girls involved in the murder depicted in the 1994 film "Heavenly Creatures."

GROSS: I know you spent about - I think it was 5 1/2 years in prison.

PERRY: Yes.

GROSS: You were 15. What was the prison like, and what - it was a prison for adult women; wasn't it?

PERRY: Yes, it was. I believe it was the toughest adult facility in the southern hemisphere.

GROSS: So what kind of crimes were the other women who you came in contact with found guilty of?

PERRY: Pretty well everything - a lot of prostitution, some of abortion, some of theft, embezzlement, crimes of violence, all sorts of things. It was the maximum-security prison.

GROSS: So what was - what kind of cell were you in? What kind of living conditions were you living in?

PERRY: One great benefit - I had a cell to myself. But other than that, it is - well, it's a stone cell, about five paces by five. The greatest difficulty was not being able to be clean because there was only - what? - two toilets between 35 of us. And they didn't have doors, so there was no privacy. And showers - two showers a week, timed, and no sanitary protection other than what you wash out by hand.

GROSS: Were you afraid of the other women?

PERRY: Oh, yes, at times - very, very frightened.

GROSS: Did they give you good reason to be afraid?

PERRY: I was never beaten up, but I was pretty scared that I might be at some time. I was the only person underage there, and I suppose I learned that if you curl up like a hedgehog or whatever, somebody else will usually come to your defense. But oh, yeah, I had times when I was pretty scared. Yes.

GROSS: So after your 5 1/2 years in prison, you were released, and the authorities gave you a new identity. Why did they give you a new identity?

PERRY: Because of the sort of hullabaloo that was surrounding the old one. If 40 years afterwards, you can get the kind of noise that you've got now about it, imagine what it would have been at the time.

GROSS: So when you got a new identity, what did they give you - a new name, a change of venue? What did they help you with?

PERRY: Well, both. They gave me a new name and a passport in that name. And I returned to Britain, where my family was. I went - I came straight home.

GROSS: And did the people there know about the trial?

PERRY: Well, my parents' closest friends knew, yes. But the people in general, no, of course not.

GROSS: So it hadn't gotten publicity in England.

PERRY: That I was released? Oh, the original, yes. It got publicity everywhere. But when I was released, no, that was done very quietly, and I just went back to my family...

GROSS: And so they...

PERRY: ...To my mother and stepfather.

GROSS: So the people you knew there didn't make the connection. They either hadn't seen your picture, or they didn't know you before.

PERRY: Well, it was - from 15 to 21, you do change quite a bit in appearance. And no, nobody made the connection. There has never been any problem whatever until about six weeks ago.

GROSS: What happened six weeks ago that made this story a public story?

PERRY: Some journalist in New Zealand managed to trace me and make the connection and then made it public.

GROSS: How did you feel about that?

PERRY: Absolutely terrible. For the first two or three nights, I would almost like to have died. I thought it would kill my mother. I thought it would probably devastate the complete life that I had built up for myself and not only ruin me, but ruin all those that I care about, my family and those who depend upon me one way or another. But thank heaven, for so many incredibly fine people, it hasn't at all. My mother is a very brave woman indeed, and she's fine. The village where I live, every single person that's had anything to say at all, it's been with complete kindness and horror that this should have happened.

GROSS: Have you felt at all a sense of relief that something that you've had to keep secret for so long you don't have to keep secret any longer?

PERRY: Well, just occasionally there's a little spark of relief. Yes. When I begin to realize that that anybody who accepts me now accepts me for what I am and without reservation, But I wouldn't have chosen for this to happen. I mean, it has been a very, very painful experience. It's very encouraging that there are so many extraordinarily good people. And I would say to anybody that there's far more goodwill out there than there is malice.

GROSS: I wonder if you feel like you still have to cope with feelings of guilt from...

PERRY: No, I don't.

GROSS: ...Forty years ago. How did you...

PERRY: No.

GROSS: ...Resolve that for yourself? I think sometimes the hardest person to forgive is yourself.

PERRY: Yes, that's true. By within the first two or three months, getting down on my knees and saying, I am sorry. I was at fault. I truly am sorry. And from now on, I will do everything I can to be the best person I know how. I think a lot of guilt stems from somehow or another still trying to defend yourself. You see; I never felt wicked. I never thought I would get anything out of it for myself. And it's getting over the trying to make excuses, trying to think, well, it wasn't really me, and saying, yes, I was at fault. Yes, I am sorry. And then from there on, you go on. You can't beat yourself with the past forever. It doesn't help anybody. And being sorry isn't a matter of thinking that you personally ought to suffer some more somehow or another. It's doing the best you can to live the very best life that you know how and to make darn sure you forgive others as you would wish to be forgiven.

GROSS: So do you feel there's any connection at all in your life between writing mysteries and being involved with the murder?

PERRY: Only in that I now care a great deal more than I used to about right and wrong. And I have a - more of a sympathy and an understanding how you can do something wrong because you're jammed into a corner, and you're scared, and you haven't time to think, and that issues are not as black and white as they might sometimes appear to be. I think I've got a less judgmental attitude than I would have had if I'd - you know, if my life had gone differently. I think I might have been a good deal more cocky, more assured of myself, more assured of the world had I had an easier path, had I never done anything which I regret.

GROSS: How did you start to write? How old were you when you realized you wanted to do that, and how did you make a living before that?

PERRY: Oh, I always either told stories or wrote them down as far back as I can remember. My mother used to tell me stories when I was, you know, 2 or 3 years old. I actually started trying to write for publication in my mid-20s. It took me about 12 years at least to get anything accepted. And I worked at general secretarial work and various other things. I was an air stewardess and a ship and shore stewardess at sea and limousine dispatcher and worked in insurance and worked in a shop, all sorts of different things. But the only thing I ever wanted to do was write.

BIANCULLI: Anne Perry speaking to Terry Gross in 1994. The author of a series of historical crime novels died last week. She was 84 years old. After a break, we remember book and magazine editor Michael Denneny, a longtime champion of gay rights and gay writers. Also, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new album from tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, and film critic Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Beau Is Afraid." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF OMER AVITAL'S "JUST LIKE THE RIVER FLOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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