For lovers of Anne Perry, An Echo of Murder holds its own special pleasures. One week from today, Perry turns 79 and can look back on a prolific writing career, as well as a controversial life that’s added a demonstrably fascinating dimension to her fiction. Convicted of murder at the age of 15, Perry possesses a life story made infamous by the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures, featuring 19-year-old Kate Winslet in the role of Juliet Hulme, which is Perry’s real name. The movie resulted in the outing of Perry, who had already been publishing popular historical mysteries for 15 years.
The murder took place in 1954 and involved Perry standing by while Pauline Parker, her close friend, beat Parker’s mother to death with a brick. The crime was committed in the hopes of ending plans to separate the two girls by sending Perry from Christchurch, New Zealand, to relatives in South Africa. Both girls were convicted of the murder, incarcerated, and released five years later, under orders never to contact one another again. No evidence exists that they’ve ever violated those orders.
“Convicted of murder at the age of 15, Perry possesses a life story made infamous by the 1994 film Heavenly Creatures.”
Predictably, Perry’s outing as Juliet Hulme forever changed the way people read her fiction. Her novels are fairly typical historical-mystery fare, well written with memorable characters, including strong female leads. As well-wrought and popular as they’ve been, however, the more compelling mystery since 1994, with each and every book, has been the mystery of Perry’s heart. A question commonly expressed is, How can the author write about bloody murders in such a typically modern, graphic fashion, with such ghastly, guilty memories?
This question becomes less overwhelming when one realizes that all of Perry’s stories are, in fact, redemption stories more than they are stories of murder and mayhem. This is most explicitly true with her Christmas-story series, but it is also very true with her mystery and detective stories.
Four years before Heavenly Creatures was released, Perry published the first book in her popular William Monk series, The Face of a Stranger, set in mid-19th-century London. When I read this book several years ago, after watching the biopic, it seemed clear that the amnesia that Monk experiences after a head injury suffered in a carriage crash is quite likely a reference to the author’s own outcast, guilty state after the real-life murder. Monk fails to recognize his own face in the mirror, feels like a pariah, understands nothing about his own personality or motivations, and comes to believe himself guilty of a murder he was investigating before the accident occurred.
In many of Perry’s books – including her first, which introduced the Jane Austen-influenced Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series – the characters are preoccupied with their inability to know or trust even those people closest to them – but in the Monk series, self-knowledge becomes painfully elusive. Monk begins to heal – and to solve the mystery in conventional fashion — only with sustained, painful efforts to deal with feelings of guilt, aided by the bright and capable Crimean-war nurse, Hester, whom he marries in a later installment of the series.
“The more compelling mystery since 1994, with each and every book, has been the mystery of Perry’s heart.”
An Echo of Murder is the 23rd installment of the Monk series, and in it Hester and William Monk emanate all the peace and serenity of a middle-aged, empty-nester couple – though the gruesome murders continue, and the need for the two to put their clever heads together to solve them never abates. The novel is far more drama than it is mystery – full of a gentle sense of compassion and healing, with many chapters taking place in a clinic for the poor, where the Monks’ fostered son, Scuff, labors to help the sick and needy in his quest to study medicine.
As sweet a denouement as this may be for a couple as popular and well-loved as the Monks, mystery lovers may find the story a bit less nail-biting or intellectually stimulating than others. The details of the mystery are not so much well-wrought as they are slapstick: astounding coincidences, unlikely discoveries, crazy logic, and pointless maguffins, all serve not only to destroy verisimilitude, but to give the impression that Perry is not up to the task in the way she used to be. After 37 years of producing somewhere around a hundred books, I think it’s safe to say we can all find it in our hearts to forgive her.
This, at any rate, was my own experience with the book – until I stumbled across this single gem of an exchange, which, for me, changed everything: “If the police do not believe the accused to be guilty of the . . . crime, then why is Dr. Fitzherbert charged with it?” asks the justice at the obligatory climactic trial. This amazing question happens to be one that’s occurred to the reader, already, more than once. To which Hester Monk replies, in precious part: “For it to be as confusing and complicated as they could make it.”
“All of Perry’s stories are, in fact, redemption stories more than they are stories of murder and mayhem.”
The obvious, then, becomes crystal clear to the dimmest among us: Anne Perry is having fun. Meandering maguffins, crazy logic, shocking ending, extra-inventive resolution – all work together to suggest an author – we can all give thanks – fully relaxed and at peace with herself. “Thank you,” a low-key Hester addresses her favorite people at the end. Echoes of Anne Perry’s own thanks, no doubt, and echoes of our gratitude for her labor of four restorative decades.