Anne Perry, a popular British-born crime novelist who once served five years in prison for a grisly murder she helped commit as a teenager, died in Los Angeles on April 10. She was 84.
Ms. Perry, a prolific writer who sold more than 26 million books worldwide, had already become well established as a novelist when her sinister past was exposed in 1994, just before the release of Peter Jackson’s film “Heavenly Creatures.”
The movie, based on a chilling matricide in New Zealand some four decades earlier in which a Christchurch woman was bludgeoned to death in a park by her daughter and Ms. Perry — then 15 years old and known as Juliet Hulme — rekindled media interest in the case. The author, who had relocated years earlier to Scotland and changed her name, was tracked down by journalists.
Ms. Perry’s character in the film, played by Kate Winslet, strikes up an intense relationship with her best friend, Pauline Parker, that Juliet’s parents view as “unwholesome.” When Juliet’s parents split and make plans to send her to South Africa, the girls concoct a plan to murder Pauline’s mother — who apparently objected to her joining Juliet abroad.
Although Ms. Perry never watched it, the film “turned her life upside down,” her biographer, Joanne Drayton, said in a telephone interview Thursday. By the mid-1990s she was a conservative, matronly figure and devoutly Mormon, according to Drayton, who likened Ms. Perry to Angela Lansbury in CBS’s “Murder, She Wrote.”
The film “blew her evolved identity out of the water and she was absolutely terrified,” said Drayton, who spent days with the author during her research for the 2012 biography “The Search for Anne Perry” — which, like many of Ms. Perry’s own historical crime novels, was a best seller.
Juliet Marion Hulme was born on Oct. 28, 1938, in London, the eldest of two children of Henry Rainsford Hulme, a prominent British nuclear scientist, and Hilda Marion Hulme, a marriage counselor. Ms. Perry was a sickly child, who at the age of 8 was sent to live with a foster family in the Bahamas to recuperate following bouts of pneumonia and tuberculosis. She was later moved to a private island off the coast of New Zealand.
In 1948, her father took up an appointment as rector of Canterbury University College, in the South Island city of Christchurch — where Ms. Perry struck up her ill-fated friendship with Parker, who was 16 at the time of her mother’s murder.
The killing — and its ferocity, beating an unsuspecting woman to death on a woodland path — sent shock waves around New Zealand, where murders are rare. The pair pleaded not guilty, on the grounds of insanity — a plea that was rejected by the jury, although they avoided the death penalty because of their age. (New Zealand carried out its last execution in 1957.)
In a 2006 interview with The Times of London, Ms. Perry said she made a “profoundly wrong decision” to partake in the murder, adding that she feared at the time that her friend would take her own life if she didn’t participate. Prosecutors treated Ms. Perry as the antagonist, according to Drayton. The pair were separated — with Parker serving her five-year sentence in a women’s borstal — and never again made contact.
After spending her teens in a Gothic-style prison in Auckland — including several months in solitary confinement — she left prison a “changed person, determined to do good,” Drayton said. Ms. Perry received no formal education in prison, but she had a fierce intellect and was determined to realize her girlhood passion of becoming a writer, according to Drayton.
Ms. Perry began drafting her first novels in her 20s in England — as she bounced around a range of jobs including as an air hostess, limousine dispatcher and insurance underwriter. Her first novel, “The Cater Street Hangman,” was published in 1979. She published dozens of novels and novellas throughout her career, regularly appearing on bestseller lists around the world.
Her next novel, “The Traitor Among Us,” which features a female English spy, is set to be published in September.
Ms. Perry never married. Her survivors include a brother, Jonathan Hulme.