Reviewed by Jeanne
In 1954, New Zealand was rocked by news of the brutal murder of a woman by her daughter and her daughter’s friend. The trial was a sensation because of the nature of the murder, but the girls’ behavior during the trial—smiling, laughing, and seemingly unrepentant—intensified the scrutiny. Their close relationship inspired much speculation. The event was one of those seminal moments in a country’s history that shaped a generation, much like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby did in the U.S. a couple of decades earlier.
The case remains compelling to this day, more because of the personalities involved than the brutality of the crime. Juliet Hulme was the daughter of two prominent British citizens. Her father, a well-known physicist, was the Rector of the local college, while her mother was a marriage counselor and had a radio program. The family was part of the social elite. The London Blitz and Juliet’s health problems had kept her away from her family for several years, time she had spent in the Caribbean and South Africa. At age 13, she was thought well enough to join the family in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Pauline Rieper had undergone health issues of her own with osteomyelitis, which also left her somewhat alienated from her family. Unlike Juliet, Pauline’s family was definitely lower middle class, but the two girls shared a fierce intelligence and a love of film and music stars as well as a sense they were special and meant for great things. They believed they would go to Hollywood where they would write movies and act in them alongside their beloved movie stars.
The girls had also developed an elaborate fantasy world. They believed they were special, able to see the heaven they dubbed the “Fourth World”, an ability Pauline believed only about ten people in the world had. They created their own religion, with gods and saints composed of the performers they most admired: James Mason, Mario Lanza, and a changing cast of others. Pauline wrote, “Juliet and I decided the Christian religion had become too much of a farce and we decided to make up one of our own.”
The intensity of the relationship began to disturb some of the adults, including Pauline’s mother. They felt the girls were too fixated on one another. Things really began to fall apart when Juliet’s father lost his job and his marriage, and the family planned to move back to England. Both girls were determined that Pauline should accompany the Hulmes. Honorah Parker Rieper, Pauline’s mother, was equally determined that she should not.
This was given as the motive for Honorah’s murder: the girls believed if she were removed, so would all obstacles to the girls’ leaving together.
Peter Graham was shielded from news of the event as a child, but when he began his legal career he found a colleague had actually worked on the case. His interest was piqued, but it was decades before he began to examine the case in depth. From my point of view, it was well worth the wait. Graham brings both honesty and genuine curiosity to the subject, writing without preconceived notions of what he would find. He researched extensively and it shows, but the writing is so clear that the reader never feels bogged down in detail. Graham uses Pauline’s diaries to provide insight on the girls as well many interviews with those still living and as much documented material as possible.
This was not my first book choice when I decided to read about the case. In a clear case of judging a book by its title, I was put off by the name Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century. I didn’t want to read a book geared toward scandal and sensationalism, and the title indicated to me that the book was trying to cash in on Perry’s name—and that is most definitely NOT what the book is about. Juliet Hulme’s life after the trial gets only a brief chapter and the "Anne Perry" name is invoked very little. In fact, when the book was first published the title was So Brilliantly Clever, reflecting a line from Pauline’s diaries. I can say without reservation that, had Juliet’s new identity never been revealed, I would have enjoyed the book just as much. However, Graham does call some of Perry’s statements into question, such as the assertion that part of the girls’ release was that they have no contact with each other; in fact, they were released “without condition.”
This book is more concerned with the psychology of the crime along with social context than sensationalism. It’s well written and compelling, and certainly memorable. He does draw some comparisons between this case and the notorious Leopold/Loeb case, based on some of the personality traits of the murderers. (The American title also reflects that, as the best known book on that case is The Crime of the Century: The Leopold-Loeb Case by Hal Higdon.)
Graham doesn’t offer any simple solutions. In fact, one of my favorite parts is near the end of the book in which various theories are presented, including some contemporary with the crime as well as more modern views. Graham leaves the reader with questions that are unanswerable but are still interesting to ponder: what would have happened if the girls had never met? Or if Pauline’s mother had agreed to allow her to go with the Hulmes? Would the girls’ murderous impulses have emerged or was it all a perfect storm?
The book also offers the reader some closure on others whose lives were affected by the crime. While The Search for Anne Perry by Joanne Drayton provided some information on the Hulmes, this book was more thorough in its approach and addressed what became of the Rieper/Parker household. After the murder, it was discovered that Pauline’s parents were not legally married, making the children illegitimate and causing the struggling family even more financial difficulty.
In the end the book also acknowledged some themes I had wondered about, including the fact that both Parker and Hulme apparently became quite devout in a religion after their incarceration: Parker became Roman Catholic and Hulme converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Graham doesn’t belabor the point but does note that the religion the girls created has some parallels to the more orthodox religions they eventually adopted.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in true crime, especially of the historical variety.
(Note: "Heavenly Creatures," the film by Peter Jackson, is based on the Parker-Hulme case.)