"Little Deaths" Emma Flint
It's 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone--a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress--wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy's body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.'s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth.
Did Ruth Malone violently kill her own children, is she a victim of circumstance--or is there something more sinister at play?
This novel is inspired by a true crime case from the 1960s in New York when Alice Crimmins was suspected of strangling her two children. Flint says that she has always had an avid interest in true crime and read about the case in "Murder Casebook" series; the story stuck with her. It is intriguing to read about a murder case that is actually inspired by true events - perhaps it makes the characters more unnerving and unsettling. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction.
The protagonist of "Little Deaths" is Ruth Malone (based on Alice) and what is really fascinating about her character is that throughout the novel she never behaves in the way society expects; she is continually judged in the way she parents - both before and after the deaths of her children. I thought this was a really interesting angle for Flint to explore and felt there were some really fascinating ideas, prejudices and attitudes raised within the novel which are as pertinent to us today as the society of the 60s when the story is set.
Although this book is about murder and includes plenty of mystery, doubt, secrets and flawed characters, it feels very different from the other titles in the best seller crime lists at the moment. The social and historical context of the 60s automatically gives it a different vibe and the setting of New York equally creates a very different atmosphere. Flint's presentation of the role of women, the investigation procedures and the court case from fifty years ago make this an intriguing and emotive read. There are twists and turns, there are moments of pain, raw grief, confusion and revelation but it all unfolds at a different pace than is generally expected from a psychological thriller. Yet still it works. It's effective and gripping.
This strange atmosphere of calmness despite the chaos and devastation surrounding everyone seems to grow from the portrayal of Ruth. I found the opening powerful as Ruth's external image of a young, beautiful woman who takes great care of her appearance contrasts with the screaming and shouting the neighbours all claim to hear from behind the closed door and through the walls. In fact this is the first clue that Ruth is a complicated, multilayered character for whom we cannot quite untangle our feelings and sympathies. Her need to perfect her appearance and dress before anything else give the scenes a slightly surreal feeling of detachment. However, there is a reason for this detailed ritual.
Each morning she smeared on foundation with fingers that trembled depending on how much the view in the mirror had upset her, or on what kind of night she'd had. There were days when her hands were shaking and sweating so that her makeup was patchy, or when her skin was so marked that two layers of foundation seemed to make little difference. ....She was Ruth then.
But Ruth is a complex character. She drinks. She has a series of shady relationships. She seeks solace at bars and with the company of men. She is not a traditional role model mother. She is a single parent. She loves her children. She would not harm them and is devastated by their disappearance. The reader spends the entire novel wondering whether to believe her, support her, sympathise with her, judge her or blame her. Flint has created a fantastic unreliable narrator and ensures the reader is continually changing their minds about whether she is involved or not - a continuous sense of she must have done it / she can't have done it - which is sustained until the final pages and then possibly beyond. People are not black and white. We can't judge a person- circumstances, relationships and evidence are never black and white.
I think it is easy to feel sympathetic towards Ruth, there is enough revelation about her life and her relationship with Frank - the children's father, to show that life has been disappointing for her.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Everything about Frank that had once made her heart race- his way of saying her name, the way he'd looked at her - after nine years and two kids together, all of that had become like the throb of a familiar headache.
Flint's use of the third person narrative is a good choice. Flint manages to create a contrast between the different passages that show Ruth in different situations and from different points of view. The narrative feels close enough to Ruth that we relate to her and build a relationship with her, but we are also privy to what else is going on around her too. I liked the fact that Flint's prose is stripped back, abrupt and although missing adjectives, creates a brilliant sense of location, emotion and tension very effortlessly.
She remembers a windowless room. Wooden chairs. Then a click. The hiss of static. A man clearing his throat, giving time and date.
Step on a crack and break your back
Step on a crack, kids ain't coming back
Ruth is a contradiction. I liked the way the narrative switched between scenes when Ruth appeared unfazed by what was happening and then the scenes when she is emotionally raw and we realise that she is deeply distraught. We are not to judge how she handles her predicament. It does not make her guilty. As I said earlier, this constant contrast also perpetuates the reader's question as to what her role in the children's disappearance really was.
She went to the bedroom and changed her clothes. Put on a clean blouse that flattered her figure. She knew that there would be men, strangers, looking at her, asking questions. Their eyes all over her like hands. She had to be ready for them. She had to look right.
She tried to speak but was afraid that when she opened her mouth, the tears in her throat would spill out. Something inside her, something instinctive and ancient, kept her from letting go. Instead she hunched over, holding the rabbit against her, holding in the sickness and the fear, bent double with the effort.
The other intriguing character in the novel is Pete Wonicke, tabloid reporter. His sections give us insight into the press coverage, the need to find a story, how they want to portray Ruth, the influence the press can have on the case. Pete is confused by Ruth's appearance when he first sees her:
[He had expected] someone wild, he thought. Tangled hair, disordered clothes. Hysterics. Instead, she was easily recognisable as the glossy woman in the photograph.
The paper's interest in the story wanes but Pete is obsessed. He can't leave the case alone. He begins to follow Ruth, to find out as much as he can about the police and the investigation. He begins to feel distaste towards his boss who is very clear about how to make the case a headline story - continuously asking him to look for more "colour". Pete finds it difficult that Ruth is giving the press and the public what they want.
Ruth had enough colour for neon and stained glass and Christmas. Pete didn't need to make her up, all he had to do was follow her and take a picture with his pen and pad and his memory, and there she was: Kodak-bright on the page.
But his persistence - although at times a little creepy and suspicious, actually results in uncovering the darker workings of the police and the press. He realises that in fact, he now doubts everything he though he knew. And this is what adds a layer of palpable tension and excitement to the story as it reaches its dramatic denouement.
I liked Flint's style a lot. It's unfussy, it's stripped back, it creates ambiguity and confusion. It's extremely readable. And at times, it is delicate and the tiniest observations create an image of huge impact and poignancy.
she felt a hand on her arm and a squeeze, a rough friendliness that interrupted the polite press of the others. She stared at the hand, with its bitten cuticles and cheap rings, and she couldn't look up because she knew that the understanding in Gina's face would break her.
she looked like a pale shimmering moth fluttering behind the glass. She looked trapped
This, then, was grief. It came to her as heaviness. It came as a stone in her throat, preventing her from swallowing....
I enjoyed this book. It will be a success. Flint has produced something that follows the forms and conventions of a successful crime thriller but with an edge and an individuality which makes it feel different. Despite being based on a true crime event and set in the past, it feels fresh and new. Ruth Malone is captivating and compelling. Flint's interest, passion and obsession for this character is obvious and has ensured that readers will also come to share a fascination, interest and obsession in her and the fate of her children.
"Little Deaths" is published on 12th January by Pan MacMillan
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