Anne Perry was a bit jet-lagged.
“I just got in to Los Angeles last night, having gotten up at 5 a.m. British time, so it seems like a long day,” she said by phone.
One of many long days, as she constantly roams the world on book tours. Jet lag is her travel companion, so how does she deal with it? “I just keep going,” she said in a prim English accent in a voice brimming with intelligence. “On the plane I drink plenty of water, eat sensibly and take cat naps. I can go right out for 10 minutes and wake up feeling better. Some people wake up wishing they were dead.”
Perry, 75, is the internationally renowned author of 75 books in six series (with some stand-alones), most of them historical mysteries set in Victorian-era England. Those include the Thomas and Charlotte Pitt novels and the darker William Monk tales. Her books have sold 26 million copies in 14 languages. The Times of London named her one of the “100 Masters of Crime.”
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“I love writing and there are so many stories to tell,” said Perry. “I’m a slightly thwarted preacher and want to say how beautiful and terrible the world is. Telling stories is the most ideal way to do it. Doing something you love is a wonderful way to be. If you’ve got any sort of ability, you must use it.”
“Death on Blackheath” is the 29th title in her series starring the Pitts. (Blackheath, an area in east London, is Perry’s birthplace.) Thomas Pitt is the commander of the powerful Special Branch, which oversees national security. Charlotte Pitt is his intuitive wife from an aristocratic family who helps him solve cases. They’re evocative of Dashiell Hammet’s “Thin Man” characters, Nick and Nora Charles, but with antique manners and without the cocktails.
Perry is one of two Bee Book Club choices for May. The other is memorist-novelist Joyce Maynard, on May 29.
Perry is English but resides in Scotland, and comes to the United States only occasionally. Usually, that means Los Angeles.
“I lived here for five years in my late 20s and early 30s. It was a formative part of my life,” she said. “Every other person here is connected to creativity in some way, and that’s exciting. It’s very nice to meet like-minded people who have heard of you but don’t think you’re extraordinary.”
Perry’s home is a converted barn built in the early 1800s, near a village of 450 people. “When I first saw it, it was a stone shell without a roof or foundation. No doors, windows, plumbing or electricity,” she said. “But it’s now a very, very nice house.”
Perry lives there alone, though it once was populated with her pets. “I’ve had lots of cats and dogs and loved them dearly,” she said. “But when the last ones died of old age, I thought, ‘I travel so much, this is not right.’ You can’t explain to a cat or dog that you’re coming back. They’re friends and they miss you.”
Drawn to Victorian era
Perry has found a niche in a subgenre – historical fiction – whose readers seem insatiable. The Victorian Era in British history (1837 to 1901) was named after the reign of Queen Victoria. It was marked by prosperity and the emergence of the arts, which included literature and such iconic practitioners as Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, the Brontë sisters and William Makepeace Thackeray.
What’s the attraction for Perry?
“It’s a period of time that’s fun to write in because it’s close enough to us that we can understand the wit and the social activity that were going on, but far enough away to still have glamour,” she said. “If you can’t get glamour out of floor-length gowns and hansom cabs and gas lamps, you aren’t trying.”
Perry began writing mysteries because she was intrigued by the notion of “what happens when there is something horrific going on in the neighborhood, such as Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. How does that affect the families who live there? I wanted to explore that. (When pressure is on) you realize you don’t know any of your family or neighbors as well as you thought. You don’t even know yourself as well as you thought. That (dynamic) is what drew me in. Since the Ripper was (active) in 1888, I put (my stories) in the Victorian era, too.”
What did the Victorians have that we don’t?
“Better manners, certainly, in some areas,” she said. “And those who had educations were better educated. Also, there was a tremendous contrast between wealth and poverty, which is still around but not quite so grim. Actually, I get most of my ideas for my plots from the current news. I just spent two days with my London agent, brainstorming for future books, and we just looked at the headlines to see what was going on.”
Thomas and Charlotte Pitt are “definitely my favorite” characters in her considerable literary universe, Perry said. But on their outing in “Death on Blackheath,” they find more than a straightforward murder case.
“Its theme is, ‘You cannot possibly go through life without incurring debts of honor,’ ” Perry said. “If you need help to save the life of somebody you love, you take it. And then down the road if the person who helped you says, ‘Now I want your help,’ you owe them. But what if they want you to do something immoral or illegal? What do you do? If there were an easy answer, it wouldn’t be worth asking the question, would it? But I never pose a question to which I don’t know the answer.”
Dark early years
Perry’s own life reads much like a tragedy, but with a redemptive arc. Before she changed her name at age 21, she was Juliet Hulme, a sickly young girl who was sent from London to the Caribbean for the more healthful climate. Later, she was reunited with her family when it relocated in New Zealand.
In 1954, at age 15, she helped her best friend, Pauline Parker, murder Parker’s mother, Honora Parker. During a stroll along a seldom-traveled path in a public park, they bludgeoned the woman with part of a brick wrapped in a stocking.
Their motive was entwined with their obsessive relationship and impending separation. Honora Parker planned to relocate to South Africa and take her daughter with her, bringing the girls’ fantasy-laden bond to an end. Their vague plan was to move to California and start a new life together.
Decades later, as an adult, Perry partly explained, “Pauline threatened to kill herself if I didn’t help. I really believed she would take her life and I couldn’t face it.”
Juliet Hulme spent 51/2 years in prison for her role, including three months in solitary confinement. Soon after her release – on condition she and Pauline never see each other again – she changed her name to Anne Perry (Perry was her stepfather’s surname). She returned to England and worked at various jobs until 1967, when she moved to San Francisco for six months. “I never took part in the Summer of Love as such,” she said. “I couldn’t have told you when it was, actually. I was too busy keeping my head above water.” There, in 1968, she joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became a devout Mormon. “I’m still active in it,” she said.
Perry next lived in Los Angeles for 41/2 years, again working a variety of jobs and writing novels she couldn’t sell. She moved back to England and on to Scotland to live with her mother. Then, in 1979, at age 40, she published her first Thomas Pitt mystery, “The Cater Street Hangman.” “It took me a long time to learn how important plot is,” she said. “I was all over the place with plots.”
Anne Perry was a well-known author by 1994, when film director Peter Jackson made “Heavenly Creatures,” based on Honora Parker’s murder. Kate Winslet played Juliet Hulme. In the midst of renewed interest in the case, and the public’s demand to know what became of the two girls, the British press soon discovered that Anne Perry was Juliet Hulme.
Since then, Perry has discussed the case only a few times, making brief statements such as, “I did something stupid that I have regretted for the rest of my life, but I can’t undo it,” and, “I was guilty and did my time. Why can’t I be judged for who I am now, not what I was then?”
One quote, perhaps definitive, was, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done or how sorry you are for something, I don’t think you help anybody by spending the rest of your life moaning about it. I think the only way you can possibly achieve anything is from then on to be the best person you know how.”
Perry now refuses to talk about the incident at all, though it has been noted that her novels wrestle with the notions of “sin and and repentance, the price of redemption and forgiveness.”
“It is vital for me to go on exploring moral matters,” she has been quoted as saying.
A writer’s life
Writing requires discipline, and Perry’s routine has become her way of life after so many years.
“Depending on where I am, I like to start work at half past 8 (in the morning),” she said. “I stop for lunch and to take a breath, and then work until early evening, six days a week. I will not work on the Sabbath unless I’m on the road and have to. I write by hand because I can’t think onto a (keyboard). Something about the machine just kills it.”
One of Perry’s series is a five-title World War I epic whose stories move among the Reavley family siblings – Joseph, a chaplain; Matthew, a Secret Intelligence Service agent; Judith, an ambulance driver on the Western Front; and Hannah, a young mother who waits for her siblings to return home safely.
The series ends at the war’s conclusion, but Perry has an idea about that.
“I would love to pick up some of those (characters) and place them in the postwar 1930s. It was a fabulous era, and I could have a ball just with the clothes and the music.”
She paused, then added, “We skirted around evil (with Hitler), so evil happened. If you could have done something to change things but you didn’t, you’re responsible for what follows.”
Perry has finished this year’s annual Victorian-era Christmas novella and is planning the 14th for 2015. What is her link to the holiday?
“In my religious sense, I think it’s the beginning of all hope,” she said. “It’s a terrible thing to say goodbye to somebody and think they no longer exist and never will again.”
Perry spends her free time mostly with her friends and remaining family, and is quite content with her lifestyle. “I don’t need to share accommodations, but I would marry if I found the right person,” she said. “It would be wonderful to have somebody else, but you don’t need somebody else to fulfill yourself. I think I’ve come close to marrying, but now I look back and say, ‘Oh, thank God I didn’t.’ It would be terrifying to have somebody around saying, ‘Here I am, make me happy.’ There are people who look for that, you know.”