"I thought, 'This will ruin me. It will kill my mother, lose me my friends and ruin my career,' " says Perry, whose identity was discovered by journalist Lin Ferguson while working on a story inspired by a new film about the sensational 1954 case, Heavenly Creatures. "I never thought it would come out, but it's always been at the back of my mind. You do go around thinking, 'What would people think if they really knew?' "
Forty years ago, all of New Zealand did know—or thought it knew—the story of the frail, London-born immigrant and her 16-year-old best friend, Pauline Parker. Perry, daughter of a physicist turned college administrator and his schoolteacher wife, had suffered since childhood from what she calls a chest complaint, and when she was 8, a doctor told her mother he didn't think the girl would survive another English winter. So Perry was shipped off to live with a foster family for 15 months, first in the Bahamas, then in New Zealand, where her parents joined her. When tuberculosis confined her to a sanatorium for three months in 1953, she forged a close friendship with her schoolmate, Parker, through a daily exchange of letters.
With her parents out of the country during her sanatorium stay, "Pauline was my only contact with the outside world," Perry recalls. "I didn't know if I was going to get better, and she stood by me as a lifeline." Her friend was also "desperately unhappy," according to Perry, and suffered from an illness much like bulimia. After Perry's release, she was considered too weak to return to school. Her isolation at home was deepened by the disorienting effects of a respiratory medication, which Perry says was later taken off the market because it was "judgment-distorting."
Then in the spring of 1954 Perry's world collapsed. Her father lost his job as president of Christchurch University and announced he would be returning to England via South Africa, while Perry's mother, Marion, left the country with a family friend soon to be her second husband. Perry was expected to leave with her father and 10-year-old brother—but without Pauline, unless her friend's parents allowed her to go.
Pauline's mother forbade it. Her distraught daughter suggested murder—and Perry agreed to participate because, she says, she believed her friend "would take her own life if I didn't do this with her. To me, at that time...I know it's stupid, but it seemed to be one life or the other. She had stood by me when I was ill, and to my mind it seemed like no one else had.... Was I going to walk out and leave her?"
From this point on, Perry says she can recall almost nothing of either the murder or the lurid trial that followed. The prosecution alleged that on June 22, 1954, Honora Parker was bludgeoned 45 times with a half-brick given to Pauline by Perry. In her statement to police, Perry admitted striking at least one blow herself. Her only recollection now, Perry says, is outrage at her lawyer for not allowing her to rebut what she felt were the prosecution's distortions, including depictions of her and Pauline as "dirty-minded little girls" engaged in a relationship with lesbian overtones. "All I remember is the horror of people talking about me and not being able to say, 'No, no, that's not it,' " she says.
The prosecution's case relied heavily on a diary kept by Pauline, in which she detailed the girls' plans for the deadly assault. Pretending to be resigned to their upcoming separation, they would accompany Pauline's mother on a farewell outing to a Christchurch park. Perry was to plant a bright object ahead on their path; when Mrs. Parker stooped to pick it up, Pauline would strike her on the head. "I feel very keyed up as though I were planning a surprise party," Pauline wrote. "The happy event is to take place tomorrow afternoon. So next time I write in this diary, Mother will be dead. How odd, yet how pleasing...."
Convicted of murder following a six-day trial, both girls were sentenced to indefinite terms and sent to separate facilities. (Perry says she never saw or communicated with Pauline after the trial and has no idea what became of her.) Perry spent most of her 5 ½-year sentence at Mount Eden, an adult prison regarded as the toughest in the country. First came three months of solitary confinement during which, Perry says, the fog from her medication began to clear. "I got on my knees and said, 'I am at fault, and I am sorry,' " she says. "The best way to fulfill being sorry is to make jolly sure that from then on you do the best you can in every respect."
By 1960, both Perry and Pauline had been released and given new identities by New Zealand authorities because of the notoriety of the case. But Perry chose to take the name of her stepfather, Bill Perry, when she returned to England and moved in with him and her mother in the industrial city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Though her memories are hazy of just what role her parents played during her arrest and trial, Perry says, "I want to make it plain that my family stood by me absolutely."
For the next 17 years, she supported herself mainly by secretarial work. "I was socially awkward then," says Perry of the period, which included five years in California before she returned to England. As for memories of her crime, "I had periods of feeling rotten, but they got further and further apart. Nature does heal." So, too, she found, did the doctrines of the Mormon church, to which she was introduced by her neighbors in the San Francisco area in the late '60s. "I suppose I was drawn by the inherent kindness and fairness of it," says the never-married Perry, whose social life since has centered around the church. "It is not a religion that says you're going to get something for nothing. You cannot do something wrong and walk away from it, but what you do is repent."
Perry, who says she had always wanted to write, published her first Victorian mystery, The Cater Street Hangman, in 1979, and has since sold 3 million books in the U.S. alone. She claims she only tried her hand at crime fiction because nobody would buy the historical novels she began writing in her late 20s. She disavows any resemblance between herself and the amnesiac detective hero of one series, William Monk.
"He's got a whole past he doesn't remember," says Perry of Monk, who is featured in her new mystery, The Sins of the Wolf, out next month (Fawcett/Columbine). "My missing period was only a few weeks." Yet she admits she invented the Monk character because "I wanted to explore looking for the monster outside and finding it in yourself."
When Perry's past caught up with her, she initially feared losing the tranquillity she had found five years ago in Portmahomack, where she shares a dramatic converted barn with three dogs and two cats. (Her mother lives nearby.) Instead, says the village postmistress, Peggy D'Inverno, "everyone has rallied round, even people I thought would enjoy the scandal." Perry's publisher has been similarly supportive. "We were greatly surprised," says Linda Grey, president and publisher of the Ballantine Publishing Group. "But there was never a moment where we didn't feel that this was a very courageous woman, who had led an exemplary life...who we feel it's important to continue to support."
Though she hardly welcomed the exposure, Perry can see now, she says, that "in some way perhaps it is the last step as far as healing is concerned. Because I'm finding that now practically everybody in the world knows who I really am—and they still like me."
ELLIN STEIN in Portmahomack