Impact of a murder: Anne Perry dies

Reports of the death of crime writer Anne Perry reminded me of the impact of a murder on me, a teen “innocent bystander” in 1954. The time and place (Christchurch, New Zealand) are as relevant as the fact of murder by my classmates. Because that was then, this is now.

Photo of 1954 newspaper article: "TWO TEENAGERS FACE CHARGE OF KILLING WOMAN. Trial of City Girls Opens To-day in Supreme Court."

Guardian article: Anne Perry, killer turned crime writer, dies aged 84. This article gives a clear outline of the story of Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, who were in my class at Christchurch Girls High School.

But of course it doesn’t tell you about the long-lasting impact their act of murder had on an individual schoolgirl, myself. That’s what the poem is about.

The healing power of poetry

The poem is not about Juliet and Pauline. It’s about the cheerful mid-20th century detective stories, and about me and my own reaction to a real murder. Writing it has helped with my own healing. This was a smallish trauma but still affected me for years. Writing about trauma can reveal a larger context. Also, thinking about writing skills is another way of putting some distance between you and the trauma.

I hope the poem may have echoes in your own lives. (Not murder, I hope!) If so, I hope it helps you to process that experience in some way.

I’m interested in how you respond to this poem.

  • Does it start you thinking about why you read crime stories or listen to true crime podcasts?
  • Does it start you thinking about how adults dealt with death when you were a child?
  • Does it start you thinking about the motivation of crime writers? (It varies wildly, of course!)
  • Does it start you thinking about irrational guilt?
  • Or something else entirely?

This particular murder arouses excitement

And this excitement repels me. I predict that at a certain point, there will be unacceptable comments from Anne Perry’s fans. These I will delete and soon afterwards, I’ll close off comments: I have no desire to get sucked down that rabbit hole.

Here’s the poem in writing.

My crush on death

Some deaths were real (apparently)
but most were in detective books.
People died in libraries
and shearing sheds and country clubs
in beds and baths and bell towers.
Agatha and Dorothy and Ngaio spun
their dainty tales of death.

Murder was a puzzle, amusing till the day
they sat me down for a chat so weird
that the air got squashed
and I didn’t know whether to faint or sob
and the blood sank into my feet.
I was fourteen when I found
that a real life murder isn’t fun
and it isn’t a puzzle.
For everyone knows who done it
and murderers can be girls
fresh out of your own classroom
girls you tried to be nice to
but in your heart you do not like.

That’s when I learned that murder hurts
everyone, even the public
who go feral with theories and fear
even the murderers who had been
so vain about their work
and I learned that every teenage girl
must be prised away, sliced away
from her best friend
in case they go all lesbian
and kill their mothers too.

That’s when I learned to feel guilty
for not seeing what was obvious
for only writing twice to Juliet in jail
guilty for not saving her, guilty for retreating
when our mothers tried to make us friends
guilty for not liking her plasticene horses
guilty for not feeling as guilty as I should
because it was all my fault.

That’s when I learned that life
is not a book. And that was how
I lost my crush on death.

Two wise women
set me free at fifty.
Only then was I allowed
to talk and talk and talk and talk
and weep.

~ Rachel McAlpine (How To Be Old, Cuba Press 2020)

Other blog posts including an audio recording of the poem

Teenager reclassified — a poem

A poetry reading: poems about murder and personality types

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20 thoughts on “Impact of a murder: Anne Perry dies

  1. Well done, raw and vulnerable. Way to put yourself out there!

  2. Beth A Rubin says:

    Wow! That was really powerful and moving

  3. Nemorino says:

    This reminds me of an article in the current issue of The Atlantic:

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      That’s certainly a broader picture. Excellent result from my point of view.

  4. Sadje says:

    This is a very powerful and moving poem. Murder is cruel and effects everyone around it.

  5. So interesting, Rachel to read of your connection to Anne Perry, and the murder and the era and how much of an impact the murder had… and to read of its impact on your own innocence. And how memory works, that you remember not liking her plasticene horses (such innocence and also so powerful as a memory). xx

  6. LA says:


  7. Very powerful. What a terrible life-changing experience. Yes, it’s one thing to read about traumatic events in books, or to see them portrayed in films, but it’s quite another thing to experience them in our flesh-and-blood world. The impact is life long, and changes us at the core. I’m sorry you (and the people in your community) have had to live with the impact of this devastating trauma. Thanks for sharing your story, Rachel.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you. There must be reasons why we are so fascinated by stories about murder. I still haven’t worked this out.

  8. Your poem is uncannily relatable to someone such as myself who didn’t experience this firsthand. The sign of a powerful poem in addition to it’s cathartic impact on your own life during its creation.
    I’ve read 1 or 2 of the Pitt books, but lost interest…knowing this, I would not have wanted to touch them…fiction birthed from the real life blood of others as personal experience? What gets me right now is the money made off her liminal past.
    To your question: It took me back to the Richard Speck killings in Chicago while I was 12 going on 13. Waiting for a swimming lesson that summer, an adult male approached me and mentioned I looked like one of the nurses that had been recently murdered in the area. I half understood the reference, but mostly remember the creepiness of the situation/man. After relaying the comment to my parents, they took me out of those lessons and my baby brother was to go with me everywhere during my summer days of play…
    My 12 year old self hugs your 14 year old self.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Laura, my 14-year-old self melts in your 12-year-old hug. Thank you.

  9. What an absolutely powerful memory that has clearly had a lasting effect!

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Very true. I’m glad that schools would now call in counselors after such an event.

  10. Rebecca Budd says:

    I am inspired by your resilience, Rachel. Your poetic words resonated. “That’s when I learned that murder hurts

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      Thank you, Rebecca.

      1. Rebecca Budd says:

        Sending hugs!🤗🤗🤗

  11. Suzanne says:

    Wonderful poems come from emotional events. I think some people may be fascinated with murder and reading stories, real or fiction, as we are all capable of committing that crime, though, of course, only a minor do, thank goodness. I dislike murder stories and worse stories of horror, don’t read them and especially don’t watch movies. I did once, and it stayed with me for months. Too much of a good imagination, and I scare easily.

    1. Rachel McAlpine says:

      It’s good to be aware of our personal limits! Your good imagination is doing its job.

      1. Suzanne says:

        I did go on more than I needed. All the best, Rachel.

  12. Poetry always provides the deepest well into which we pour the immense pieces of our pain and emotion. It’s artwork in language. Thank you for sharing this so transparently. What a terrible tragedy. These types of incidences always affect the whole community in so many ways. Whenever I think of Christchurch I also think of the cult, Gloriavale. I read “Daughter of Gloriavale,” and it was extremely emotional.