I’m reading Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, a 2011 New York Times bestseller, which I received as a Christmas gift. Peter Graham, the author, is a retired barrister who worked in Hong Kong and now lives in New Zealand.
Anne Perry is an 80-year-old writer of murder mysteries, who, in 1954 when she was 15, participated in the murder of her best friend’s mother. Perry’s family was set to return to England from New Zealand, and while Perry’s father, a distinguished physicist, went ahead to look for work, she and her mother planned to stay temporarily with friends in South Africa. The girls conceived of the murder plot as a way to stay together. (That idea didn’t make sense then or now, but so it was.)
Because they were juveniles, Perry and her friend, Pauline Parker, served five years for the crime. Perry returned to England and has lived what seems to be an exemplary life ever since, taking up writing as a career when she was 39 and producing, by my count, more than 100 works so far.
Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century is well written and thorough—some might say exhaustive: 320 pages of text, an additional 32 pages of pictures, an index, and a recommended bibliography. If you want to know anything about Anne Perry’s life from two generations before she was born (I now know the maiden name of her maternal grandmother) to the time of her trial, this is the book for you. Both girls kept detailed daily diaries of their actions and thoughts, and Graham received permission to use these as well as trial transcripts and other original source materials. Sometimes he veers into interpretation that I dislike, but for the most part he sticks to actual diary entries, letters, recalled conversations, and interviews with survivors for his narrative. He even uses ship manifests and genealogical searches, for example, to describe the family’s movements and background.
So here’s the thing: I knew about Perry’s murder conviction. (There was a movie! Heavenly Creatures starring Kate Winslett and Melanie Lynskey.) And once you know about the murder, there’s not a lot else to say about Perry’s life that’s all that interesting. And the writing of this book, while more than competent, is not especially gripping. I’m not exactly enjoying it.
And yet, I cannot put it down.
What’s with that? I’m reading more detail than I want to know about these two families, I’ll never remember even a tenth of it all, I know the outcome, and yet…I keep reading. I’m feeling a bit like one of those drivers on the freeway that slows to a crawl the better to observe the car wreck in the next lane.
Of course, I’m not the only one. The book was a NYT bestseller, so lots of other people couldn’t put it down, either.
How about you? Did you get books for Christmas, and are you enjoying them? What are you reading now?