Friday, December 16, 2011

Untold stories: an interview with Kiwi true crime writer Peter Graham

Largely retired Hong Kong barrister Peter Graham talks to Craig Sisterson about a life filled with orchards, cider, and delving into history through the door of true crime writing

Writing was something that long-time barrister Peter Graham had always seen, “in the back of my mind or further forward”, as something he’d wanted to do. “I’ve always been a great booklover and reader, and yes I think it’s been an ambition of mine for a very long time,” says Graham, whose second ‘true crime’ book, So Brilliantly Clever (Awa Press, 2011) was released last month, to great reviews and a spot on the local non-fiction bestseller list.

Now largely retired from a long life in the law, including three decades as a Crown Counsel then barrister in Hong Kong, Graham spent the past three and a half years extensively researching one of New Zealand’s most notorious crimes and trials – the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder. It’s a case that has fascinated Graham since as a young lawyer he worked in the 1970s as an assistant to Brian McClelland, who had been junior counsel for Juliet Hulme.

“Before I went to Hong Kong I had the idea that I wanted to write a book about the Parker-Hulme case, because I’d become so interested in it,” recalls Graham. “In fact I tried to get hold of the Wynn Williams file on the case, with the help of Brian McClelland, but the file had gone missing. I went on to Hong Kong, and the need to earn a living intervened.”

Graham, who completed his law degree at Victoria University and worked at Chapman Tripp before moving to Christchurch, spent five years as a prosecutor in Hong Kong – for the Crown then the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which “mainly prosecuted policemen who’d amassed mega fortunes in some cases… pretty fascinating stuff” – before going to the bar. It was while working as a barrister there that he came across the story that would become his first true crime book, Vile Crimes: The Timaru Poisonings (CUP, 2007).

Vile Crimes centres on one of the most sensational court cases of the nineteenth century; in 1886 charming Timaru businessman Tom Hall Jr, the nephew of former New Zealand premier Sir John Hall, was tried first for the attempted murder of his wife, then the murder of his father-in-law, Captain Henry Cain, one of the founding fathers of Timaru, whose body had to be exhumed for evidence. “It was the most terrific scandal in its day, absolutely earth-shattering stuff,” says Graham, who stumbled across a contemporary account of the trial in a rare book catalogue. “I thought it was a great story, and it was also very fully reported, because it caused a scandal. And for me it was an interesting window into the period as well – it wasn’t just about the crime itself, it seemed to me to provide quite a bit of insight and a lot of detail into what life was like in this small, rather snobbish community in the 1880s.”

Graham, who at the time still had the idea of a book about the Parker-Hulme murder bubbling away in the back of his mind, thought the Timaru poisonings would be an easier story to tell – “which it proved to be” – due to the fact there was less material, and it was all documentary in nature, rather than involving interviews and other sources. “I thought I could teach myself to write a book by starting with this,” he says. He found time to write amongst his legal schedule, and started leading “this kind of dual life” as a lawyer and writer.

By the time he later began working on what became So Brilliantly Clever, Graham had largely retired from legal practice, to a small farm he and his wife had bought near Dunsandel. Apart from supervising a few pigs, pottering around with a small farm “and rather big garden”, writing, and a little bit of law and travelling, they grow apples, says Graham. “We have a business making apple juice and cider, so in a way that’s my day job. We make single variety apple juice called Camla Farm, and it’s my job to do the labelling, bottling, dispatching, and deliveries and that sort of thing. That occupies me some of the time.” A hint of pride creeps into his voice as Graham notes their cider has won gold medals, and they are “probably the only people in New Zealand making cider commercially with cider apples”.

Despite the fact that Graham’s first two books, and the one he has now started researching – on the case of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, an Irish pacifist and suffragist arrested without reason and executed by British Army soldiers during the 1916 Easter Rebellion – all involve historic true crime, the former barrister doesn’t think he’s “more interested in crime than anyone else”. In fact, he’s primarily interested in the past. “I can’t imagine myself writing a book about a murder that’s happened last week in Wellington, or something,” he says.

For Graham, finding such fascinating incidents merely provides an interesting doorway to explore the world as it was in a particular place during a particular time – whether it’s 1880s South Canterbury, 1950s Christchurch, or Dublin during the First World War. “I think the starting point would have to be that I’d like to think I know a good story when I see one,” he says. “You’re not just writing about a crime, you’re writing about it very much in the round. It’s a way to look at the world. You’re seeing people in extreme situations, aren’t you.”

Graham also likes to comprehensively explore untold stories – whether stories that most people have heard very little about, such as the Timaru poisonings, or stories that are very famous and people think they know about, but don’t really, such as the Parker-Hulme murder. While the incident at the core of So Brilliantly Clever had been touched upon in plays, film, and some fiction and non-fiction works, Graham felt that there was still a gap, a lack of “a full account”. He also felt that if left any longer it would become harder to gather facts, as more people involved would have passed away. “I thought it had to be done now.”

The reaction of one of the first people to read the finished book, TV journalist Janet McIntyre, probably sums up the perceptions many New Zealanders have about how much they know about the Parker-Hulme case. “She said, ‘you know, I thought I knew all about this case, but then I realised after I read about five pages, that I didn’t know about it at all’,” recalls Graham, who applied to the Court to get access to the transcript of Pauline Parker’s diary, amongst other research. “It is so much a part of history and culture in New Zealand, that everybody thinks they knew about it, but actually [we don’t], and I had to work quite hard to put together some of the most basic facts about it.”

Graham is grateful for his long and interesting career as a lawyer, but says writing non-fiction books is “the most fascinating thing” he’s ever done. “I just love it. My heart is really in this, and I really try my very, very hardest to do my very, very best. It’s something I want to do, and feel I can do. So it’s something I will keep doing as long as I’m sound of mind and limb.”


This article was first published in the print edition of NZLawyer magazine, issue 175, 16 December 2011, and is reprinted here with kind permission.


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