7.9.6 The Daily Telegraph London 1994, Friday, August 5, 1994

When murder catches up with you
by Sarah Gristwood

As a teenager, Anne Perry helped to kill her best friend's mother. Now 55, her career as a thriller writer is endangered by a film about her guilty past, finds SARAH GRISTWOOD

The Daily Telegraph London 1994, Friday, August 5, 1994
(c) The Telegraph plc, London

Novelist Anne Perry doesn't live the kind of life from which you expect scandal to flower. On an ordinary weekday in her Scottish fishing village she is writing books, gardening, walking the dogs.

But suddenly this week, at the age of 55, her past caught up with her and she must now cope with the devastating effects of a story that has surfaced after 40 years.

On Tuesday, a story appeared in a Scottish newspaper identifying her as a murderer. Forty years ago as a teenager in New Zealand she and a friend murdered the friend's mother. At 15 she was detained at Her Majesty's pleasure. She was released five and a half years later with a new name, and has gone on to build a new life and career, most recently as a thriller writer.

"I've done my best to put it out of my mind," she says. "Once you have admitted you are at fault, have said 'I'm sorry, I'm utterly, totally sorry', without excuse, and paid your price, then you have to put it behind you."

The effect on Anne Perry's life of this week's disclosure of her past life has been cataclysmic. She is a pillar of the local community and a long-serving member of the Mormon church. Tall, unmarried, dignified, she would obviously have strength and humour under normal circumstances. She has buried her past: now she is concentrating on holding on.

Since 1978, when she published her first thriller, Anne has carved a substantial reputation as a writer. Though not yet a household name here, her chain of Victorian "Inspector Pitt" and "William Monk" murder mysteries has made her a bestseller in America.

Her books have a strong social and ethical element; to date, she has sold more than three million books in America and 18 months ago she signed a $1 million contract there for eight more.

Ironically, it is her new-found fame and an imminent New Zealand film about the murder she committed which have brought the past to life.

Anne was born in London, but at eight, on the advice of a doctor who said she wouldn't survive another English winter, she was sent first to the Bahamas, to live with another family, and from there to New Zealand.

"The effect was disorienting - but I know my mother sent me away with great anguish. She had already heard one doctor say, when I was six, that he would come back to sign my death certificate in the morning. One of the things that hurt me most was the way they painted her at the time of the trial," Anne says.

At 13, her family having by then joined her in New Zealand, she was taken out of school, again with chest problems. It was "a strange and lonely time", relieved only by the friendship of another girl, Pauline.

"I don't want in any way to implicate or blame her," Anne says. "I heard the other day that she has made a success of her life, but I have had no contact with her from that day to this. But she wished me to join her in this act and I believed that if I did not she would take her own life."

Pauline was ill with what to modern ears sounds like bulimia. "It was at this time that my parents split up and we were going to leave the country. I felt that I was deserting Pauline. We would have taken her with us, but her mother wouldn't let her go. She felt her mother was the only thing stopping her from leaving a situation she felt was intolerable. I believed at the time her survival depended on her coming with us.

"I sincerely believed that her life was in the balance. Crazy as this sounds, I thought it was one life or the other. I just couldn't face the thought of being responsible for her dying. And I made a very foolish choice."

IT IS NO use now to press for details of the event, or of the mood which blew up between the two girls in the space of a few frantic days. Can't say, not won't say, she explains.

"I've completely blocked it out. All I can say is that it was violent, and quick." Reports at the time said that on June 22, 1954, in a Christchurch park, Pauline used a half-brick provided by her friend to hit her mother over the head. Anne cannot remember any plans for escape.

"I was 15, I was ill, and for two years I had been out of circulation. Because of this chest ailment, I had been treated with drugs that have since been withdrawn because they tend to warp judgment. And though the normal course of treatment was three months, I had them for nine.

"I would like to think that was to some extent responsible for my crazy judgment. But obviously I was an accomplice: I was party to this act, and I never pretended otherwise." At the trial she found that a 15-year-old has the worst of both worlds - compelled to be present, but not allowed to say a word. "The defence of insanity was not accepted, of course. I don't think the reason ever came out. They were just delighted to rip my family down because they were middle-class and foreign.

"Pauline kept a diary and they distorted its contents to make sexual orgies and all sorts of things. If you're 15 you don't get to say, 'Look, just a minute, that's tripe'. They had us getting out at night. We did get out at night - once. We bicycled to the beach and had a moonlight swim. But if you're 15 you just have to sit there and listen.

"I've chosen to forget a great deal of it all, because you can't survive if you do. It was 40 years ago; I have done everything I can to live as good a life as I know how since. To the best of my belief, I am doing nobody any harm, and as much good as I am able."

Returning to England in the early Sixties, on her release, she found immense support from her family, which has lasted to this day. What she now fears most is the effect on her mother and brother.

Her wounds reopened when a journalist on New Zealand's Wellington Sunday News identified Anne as one of the subjects of Heavenly Creatures, a new film about the murder, which opens later this year. The story of the successful writer with a past was picked up by Scotland's Daily Record.

"My mother doesn't deserve this," Anne says. "She is 82, and has a heart condition. She has just made herself a decent home, in the same village where I live, and earned love and respect. We have always been very close. This tore her to shreds.

"I have had to spend the past few days ringing friends and associates - but I have found the most incredible support. No one has turned away. Everybody has said: 'You were a child, this was 40 years ago, we are right with you.' I didn't know there were so many compassionate, honourable, decent people around.

"I would have expected some peopln overwhelmed." SHE HAS always told the truth about her past at salient points; to the American immigration authorities - who granted her a full visa after hearing the trial transcripts - and to her Church. "I think all Christian faiths will say that, if you have paid the price and have truly repented, there is forgiveness. It is just some elements of society that don't. What I did was wrong, very wrong, but I did not ever do it for hate or for gain. I did it because, insane as it sounds, I felt at the time that was my only option."

An experience like this, she says "makes you try doubly hard all the rest of your life to be as good as you can. It makes you far more careful of mistakes than you would have been. Because you know the price of doing something that you'll regret ever afterwards."

Anne Perry despises amateur psychology. She knows, perhaps, how easily it might be applied to her. Someone else, knowing all the circumstances, might well make out a more sympathetic case for her than she feels able to do - but her passionate focus at the moment has to be on the present, not the past.

She comes over as a woman striving against the fear that a lifetime with more than its fair share of achievements and good works is in danger of being swept away.

"I have had people say that my work is studied in ethics classes for its compassion and humanity," she says, sounding a note more of loss than of pride. "Oh, I would weep if that were to be obliterated now."