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The Murder of the Century

05/21/2013 10:54 am ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013
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On a sunny winter's afternoon, June 1954 in Christchurch New Zealand, two teenage girls, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, accompanied by Pauline's mother, Honorah Parker, went for a walk in Victoria Park. There the girls put into action their plan to murder Honorah.

On a secluded path Juliet dropped a pink stone. When Honorah bent down to pick it up Pauline came up behind her and bashed her repeatedly with a stocking containing a half brick. When the stocking broke the girls held their victim by the throat, face-up on the ground and took turns to club her to death with the brick. Her face and head were smashed almost beyond recognition. Detective Sergeant Tate commented that Pauline's mother "had been attacked with an animal ferocity seldom seen in the most brutal murders."

This then is the murder that was the subject of Peter Jackson's award-winning 1994 movie Heavenly Creatures. It has inspired several plays and at least three novels but the whole strange story from start to finish is told for the first time in my book Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century.

The relationship between Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker was and still is a matter of inexhaustible fascination. A transcript of Pauline Parker's diary-which I was only able to access by means of an application to the High Court of New Zealand-opens the door to their strange world. At the time of the murder Juliet was a few months short of her sixteenth birthday: she was tall for her age, slender, self confident, strikingly attractive. She spoke with "a beautiful English accent." Pauline, who liked to be called "Paul," was half a head shorter than Juliet, with dark curly hair worn shorter than most girls'. She was something of a misfit, less obviously attractive than Juliet, with a permanent angry scowl. Pauline was flattered to be befriended by Juliet and soon fell under her spell.

Their family backgrounds were very different. Juliet's father Dr. Henry Hulme was a brilliant nuclear physicist and served as rector of Canterbury University College. The socially prominent Hulmes lived in one of the finest houses in Christchurch. Juliet's mother, Hilda, was well-groomed and attractive but, as a friend describes her, "egotistical" and "somewhat irresponsible for a woman in her position." The latter comment refers to her free-ranging sex life. In contrast, Pauline's father Bert was the manager of a fish shop and her ill-tempered care-worn mother ran a "shabby and shambolic" boarding house in the inner city that was home for Pauline.

The girls had an obsessive interest in opera and the movies. By January 1954 they were writing novels such as Pauline's The Donkey's Serenade and Juliet's The Beautiful Lady in Blue. They were convinced that they themselves were "astoundingly good" opera singers. They developed a private pantheon of their favourite movie and opera stars they called "The Saints" that included James Mason, Guy Rolfe, Mario Lanza, Orson Welles, Mel Ferrer, Jursi Björling, Michael Rennie, Hildegard Knef and Ava Gardner. They decided they must go to Hollywood where their novels would be made into movies and one or other of them would marry James Mason and they would befriend Marilyn Monro and Ava Gardner. When Pauline spent a week with Juliet in June the girls spent hectic nights "enacting how each Saint would make love in bed." "We have now learned the peace of the thing called Bliss the joy of the thing called Sin," Pauline wrote after one such session.

At the same time, Juliet and Pauline were threatened with separation. Henry Hulme had resigned from his position at Canterbury University and was returning to England. He and Hilda Hulme were getting divorced. It was decided that Juliet, who had been ill with tuberculosis the previous year, would be sent to stay with Henry's sister in South Africa where the climate would be beneficial to her health. Both the Hulmes encouraged the girls to believe that Pauline would be allowed to accompany Juliet to South Africa if her mother would permit it. Pauline knew that her mother would never allow this. It seemed clear that her hated mother was the only obstacle to her future happiness.

The girls decided upon a plan that might look like an accident. By June 19th it was a "definite plan." One good blow on the back of the head and she would fall dead. They would roll her body down the bank and it would look as if she had fallen and hit her head. No one who attended the scene of the murder thought for a second it was an accident.

Pauline and Juliet were released from prison in November 1959 after each had served a little more than five and a half years. Each was given a new identity to help them make a fresh start and both disappeared from public view. In July 1994 it was a tremendous newsflash when an enterprising journalist discovered that the well-known crime novelist Anne Perry who lived in the Scottish Highlands was in an earlier life Juliet Hulme, the "schoolgirl murderer" from New Zealand. Anne Perry had written a string of murder mysteries set in Victorian London starting with The Cater Street Hangman published in 1978. Her books gained a huge following, particularly in the United States and Germany. When I last heard she had sold more than 25 million books.

The discovery that Anne Perry wrote from personal experience as a murderer proved good for sales. Perry has given numerous interviews over the years promoting her books, and has never shown much in the way of real contrition. In 2006 when Amanda Cable of The Daily Mail asked Anne Perry if she ever thought back to the murder her answer was "No ... I would just torment myself and that wouldn't help anyone." Did she ever think of her victim? "No," Perry said. "She was somebody I barely knew."

Pauline Parker, who became Hilary Nathan, now lives on a lonely croft on Orkney, at the northern tip of Scotland, less than a hundred miles from Anne Perry. Do they ever see each other? This question has is one of the last unsolved pieces to the murder of the century.