So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World, by Peter Graham (Awa Press, Wellington, 2011), 341 pp., $42.00.
Even now, my sister and I, who grew up in Christchurch in the 1950s and 1960s, have an ambiguous attitude towards Victoria Park, high on the hills above the city. It was the scene of happy family picnics, and the views to sea and alps were glorious, but there was also a hint of menace and fear. ‘That’s the path,’ we would whisper to each other as we looked over the low stone wall not far from the tea kiosk. ‘That’s where they did it.’
Everyone knew about the terrible murder that had occurred in this lovely place on 22 June 1954, only a few months before I was born. Teenagers Juliet Hulme and her friend Pauline Parker battered the latter’s mother, Honorah, to death. The case riveted media and shocked readers far beyond New Zealand.
The three had gone to the park for afternoon tea about 2.30. By three o’clock they had left for a walk that led down a steep slope near the caretaker’s house. Half an hour later the two girls, spattered with blood, ran into the kiosk screaming that Nora, as she was called, was ‘terribly hurt’, that she was dead. Once the caretaker and his assistant found the appallingly damaged body – head smashed, eyes closed and bulging, hair matted with blood – and saw a half-brick nearby covered with blood and hair lying only centimetres away, it did not take long for the girls’ claim of an accident to be dismissed. The machinery of police, doctors and lawyers wound into action and Hulme and Parker were arrested.
There was so much that made this murder extraordinary: the ages of the girls, the rarity of matricide as a crime, the fervently intimate friendship, the brutality of the killing, the careful planning (‘we decided to use a rock in a stocking rather than a sandbag,’ wrote Parker in her diary), the revelation that Pauline Parker’s parents were not married – she was in fact known by her father’s surname of Rieper, but this was changed to Parker once the true nature of the relationship was clear. Then there were the difficulties in the Hulme family. Henry Hulme, an Englishman appointed as rector of the university, ran into trouble when he failed to support a proposal for a School of Forestry at his institution, and his wife, the sophisticated and passionate Hilda, was having an affair.
Despite its obvious publishing potential, and a variety of other treatments, most notably Peter Jackson’s acclaimed film Heavenly Creatures, the case had spawned only one non-fiction book, Alison Laurie and Julie Glamuzina’s Parker and Hulme: A Lesbian View. Peter Graham, who was a barrister in Hong Kong for three decades, and tested his authorial mettle with Vile Crimes, a book on the infamous 19th-century Timaru poisoning case, decided to tell the Parker–Hulme story. He had a connection to the murder: as a young lawyer he worked with Brian McLelland, who was junior counsel for Juliet Hulme.
It is a gift of a story, and there is no doubt that Graham’s account is compulsively readable. As he proved in Vile Crimes, he is an articulate writer who knows how to tell a rattling good yarn. It is impossible not to keep turning the pages, and his legal background allows him to deal clearly and competently with the progress of the trial and the ins and outs of the defence and prosecution strategies.
Another real strength of the book is his refusal to reach any firm and unassailable conclusion about the reasons for the murder. Rather he offers a balanced and sensible range of possible contributing factors, such as the girls’ emotionally deprived childhoods and history of illness, and presents a number of psychological theories and approaches to understanding the motives for the murder and the nature of the friendship.
One hesitates to label it a ‘positive’, but in fact Graham’s unflinching revelation of the gruesomeness of the murder is another strength of the book. Many people, myself included, may have thought that Honorah Parker was killed by a single blow to the head; in fact she was hit multiple times. This was a ghastly way to die.
But there are problems with So Brilliantly Clever. Firmer and more attentive editing would have given the book greater finish and professionalism without removing the appealing gusto and verve of Graham’s writing. There is often an air of intelligent, gentlemanly, clubbable amateurism about the book, which can produce some delightful flashes of sly humour, such as the dig at Fay Weldon’s overheated memories of Christchurch Girls’ High: ‘even distinguished novelists are capable of foolishness.’ But the other side of this is a frequent, odd and jarring use of the vernacular: ‘cocked it up’, ‘about to top himself’, ‘what in heaven’s name did she mean?’, ‘one good whack on the head and a person was as dead as a dodo’, ‘bashed her’ … Such almost flippant remarks may be acceptable in casual conversation, but they have no place in what purports to be a serious book on a desperately serious subject. Graham does himself a real disservice in this respect and should have been given, and taken, better editorial advice.
Sometimes there is a peculiar lack of context for people: for example, calling Neville Phillips ‘a young history professor’ seems an odd way of describing a future vice-chancellor of the university. There is some repetition, such as the material on narcissism that appears on pp. 236 and 239. Sometimes, too, there is a slight lack of sophistication, as in the summing up of Henry Hulme on p. 139: ‘The truth was that many people disliked him greatly. He was frequently accused of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds…. He was widely held to be a disaster as a rector.’ Such sweeping statements tend to be unsubstantiated and no sources are given – there are no footnotes or endnotes in the book – for the many direct quotes from a variety of people. These should have been taken from dated interviews that were included in the bibliography. The latter, against all usual (and sensible) convention, appears in alphabetical order of title rather than author. Graham does not appear to have looked at the coroner’s reports for the trial.
The copyediting has its sloppy moments – ‘Hilda would later reveal little about the comings and goings of Juliet and her during the war years’ (p. 44), or misspelling the first name of the great opera star Gigli (p. 117) – and the local mistakes will jump out for Canterbury readers: the misspelling of Okeover or writing Lancaster Park when Hagley Park is clearly meant.
The more sensational the subject, the more need for painstaking care. So Brilliantly Clever is a readable and engrossing account of a dreadful event, but it could have been more convincing and compelling had more care been taken with its publication and had Graham been challenged about his casual style and required to back and source his quoted material and opinions. The reader is left with a slight suspicion that the book’s undoubted success may sometimes rest more on its subject matter – ‘the murder that shocked the world’ – than on the way it has been dealt with.
ANNA ROGERS has been a book editor for more than 30 years. She is the author of seven books and has edited an anthology of writing about her home town of Christchurch.