Punished for Appearances: Emma Flint’s Little Deaths

Little Deaths by Emma Flint is the kind of book which has been buzzing away on the horizon of my consciousness, with many excited tweets, some excellent reviews and then longlisted for the Bailey’s Prize. I finally read it last week but have been waiting to gather my thoughts about it, because it left me feeling rather spent.

It makes for a powerful reading experience, there is no doubt about that. I went into it not knowing much about the Alice Crimmins case upon which it is based. When I googled it afterwards, I was surprised just how many of the real-life details the author had incorporated into her fictionalised version. Another surprise is that the author has never been to that working-class neighbourhood in Queens in New York (and certainly not in the 1960s). She is in fact British and did most of her research of the setting on YouTube and Google Maps. Kudos to her for such an authentic recreation of time and place.

Ruth Malone is a glamorous red-head, separated from her husband, raising two children whom she loves but often finds hard going, working as a cocktail waitress and being overtly unrestrained in her sexual behaviour, too much so for the tastes of that 1960s neighbourhood (regardless of what people might have got up to behind closed doors). She is also in an acrimonious dispute over custody with her estranged husband Frankie. One morning in July she unlatches her children’s bedroom door to find her young children missing. Within days their bodies are found in a dump and a nearby woods, strangled, decomposed, and she becomes the prime suspect in their deaths.

Cover of Front Page Detective from 1968, featuring Alice Crimmmins.

It soon becomes clear that the police are far more interested in Ruth’s sex life than in proper detective work. They do not seriously search for any other suspects, fail to investigate all the clues and possible avenues, focus only on certain aspects of the evidence (the love letters Ruth has received from her admirers) while ignoring all others. Instead, they interrogate Ruth over and over again, in an attempt to ‘break’ her, which only makes her more angry. In her descriptions of the painfully lonely, eternally disappointed and perpetually defiant Ruth, the author brilliantly encapsulates the attitude of the original Alice Crimmins, who said:  ‘They wanted me to grieve—not for the sake of my children, but for them—the police. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction. They were my kids. Nobody was out looking to see who killed my kids. They were interested in making me break.’

The trial was already prejudged by the time they went to court. While Ruth is hardly an angel, she is not too far removed from the frazzled working single mum of today. The gossipy atmosphere, neighbourly resentments, as well as judgemental attitudes towards what makes a good mother are perfectly captured. How dare she take considerable time to put on makeup before talking to detectives or go out to buy a new dress? Never mind that makeup is Ruth’s suit of armour, a defence against acne and possibly some psychological scars. Interestingly enough, many readers’ reviews on Goodreads claim that they cannot feel any grief from Ruth, that she is too emotionally detached, too blank. So she is being judged all over again.

There are some repetitive moments, especially regarding Ruth’s bodily self-loathing and her ‘yellow smell’ – and that lengthy opening scene of putting on her make-up before and after the event which changed her life. [I thought agents and editors warn us to never start with someone looking at themselves in a mirror.] But overall, those poignant moments of enforced gaiety, going out and picking almost any man to combat her loneliness, successfully convey the despair, temporary madness, strange passivity and feeling of futility which do come with immense grief. Every one of us grieves differently.

Of course, we are encouraged to view Ruth in a more positive light because of Pete Wonicke’s growing sympathy towards her. Pete is a rookie journalist who initially contributes to the anti-Ruth rhetoric in an attempt to sensationalise the story and sell newspapers, but increasingly tries to find out the real person behind the mask. Or so he tells himself, in an attempt to justify his obsessive, almost stalkerish fascination with the case. Marking a clever counterpoint to the story, he is a compromised narrator himself.

Author photo from Jo Unwin Literary Agency website.

In this book, Emma Flint offers an alternative explanation for what happened that night, but the real case has never been solved. What made for more disturbing reading is knowing that this type of ‘trial by media and public opinion’ is still so common today. See for example Karen Matthews, often dubbed ‘Britain’s most despised Mum’, or Casey Anthony in the States. a.k.a. ‘America’s most hated’, who declared ‘People found me guilty long before I had my day in court.’ In an age of internet trolling, public reactions are even more frightening and extreme even in relatively mild cases, as in this example of a mother who took an innocent picture of her Down’s syndrome toddler hiding in a washing-machine.

Less of a suspense novel, more of a depiction of a particular era, so perhaps not one for readers who are looking for a true thriller. What it offers instead is both social commentary and an in-depth character study of two lonely misfits: one of whom tries to fit in by making compromises, the other furiously refusing to make any.


26 thoughts on “Punished for Appearances: Emma Flint’s Little Deaths”

  1. Great review. I can see why this was shortlisted for the Baileys. I am impressed that the author could build up such a sense of place even though she relied on YouTube and Google. The book is marketed as a thriller. So thanks for pointing out that it is more of story development than plot twists

  2. Not much changes, does it? It depresses me that we don’t seem to be getting any further forward and that women are judged in so many different ways than men are. And the Internet has given another platform for the hate and judging. I was just reading an Edith Wharton in which divorced women are outcasts and although the cause is different, the result for women who don’t fit in is still the same.

    1. A recently divorced friend of mine works in a very male-dominated environment and all her colleagues seem to be inordinately interested in her private life, although they barely mention their wives (whom they seem to treat as part of the furniture-cum-housekeepers). I was shocked to find this still so blatant, especially in the UK, rather than the patriarchal societies of Romania and Greece, where I expect nothing else.

  3. An excellent review, as ever, Marina Sofia. It’s not easy to use a real crime story as the basis for fiction, but it sounds as though this one succeeded. And what a tale it tells about society, too. It sounds quite powerful on that score alone. I’m glad you found it worth reading.

    1. I’m not a huge fan of true crime, perhaps I find it too disturbing? (No such problems with fictional accounts!) So I am quite glad that I took this one at face value and only explored the background behind it later. Incidentally, the real trial was less clear-cut and she was retried later, so there are certainly some fictional elements to improve the storytelling.

  4. I finished reading this last week and I’ve been meaning to post a review on Goodreads. No need now. I’ll just refer everyone to yours. I agree with just about every word. I thought it was a great read and a really well written and constructed novel. Great evocation of time and place. Credible characters and a sensitive, but not sentimental, portrayal of the protagonist. Intelligent commentary on the prejudices of the time which, as you say, still persist today. What a debut – I confess to feeling a little envious of the author’s skill.

    1. No, please do review it, would love to read your thoughts in more detail. I did have some minor reservations about certain repetitive passages and phrases – although they do reflect the protagonist’s mind, it could have been done more succinctly – but an amazing debut, I agree.

  5. This sounds right up my alley, both the setting and the subject. Your introduction reminded me of the criticism Stef Penney had to put up with when it emerged that she’d not visited Canada while researching The Tenderness of Wolves. It was set in the nineteenth century: was she supposed to develop a time machine too?

    1. Yes, there is a difference between ‘authentic’ and ‘factually correct in every single detail’. I am more than happy to go with suspension of disbelief if it seems plausible, and nothing jars me out of that particular fictional world.

      1. I remember getting bogged down in Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes which explored North American immigration through the instrument but went into far too much detail about the many varieties of accordions, all of which I’ve since forgotten.

  6. I read Caroline’s review of this yesterday and had to think of Casey Anthony then. I see that was justified, since you mention her here. This book is not for me, but I’m glad it was written. Sadly, in my experience, it is often women who judge other women the most severely. Few people seem to be bothered by the fact that a term like “mommy shaming” even exists.

    1. Absolutely! There is a chilling moment when Ruth protests that the jury is composed entirely of men and what they do not tell her is that the women they had interviewed for jury duty had all already condemned her, so were deemed unsuitable.

  7. It’s difficult territory this, a fictionalised riff (probably not the right word) on a real-life case. I think I would find it hard to read something like this for various reasons, not least the points you highlight in your review…

  8. Thank you so much for this considered review. I’ve yet to start on the Bailey’s long list and ‘Little Deaths’ didn’t really stand out to me from the descriptions so far, but this has helped me feel I have something to go on when choosing which books to read

  9. I just read the review of this over at Caroline’s blog. I don’t think we can ever really get away from the idea of convicting people before their trials and I wonder if it’s even worse these days with the internet and the court of public opinion.

  10. Fab review! This sounds hugely intriguing and will be added to the wishlist pronto. It made me think of the internet fascination with the McCann case – the conspiracy theorists who analyse every word spoken and every look given by either of the parents and judge them, usually harshly, with very few defenders. I can’t pretend to be altogether immune – I spent far too much time over a period of a couple of days watching all the videos and found myself becoming just as obsessed, so I quickly stopped. But we undoubtedly do have preconceived notions about how parents should react to a tragedy involving their children…

  11. A very good review. We felt the same about this. I noticed the repetitions but since I read it so quickly I didn’t mind. I really liked the opening scene.

  12. I’ve had this book for ages and really want to read it – I need more reading hours in my day. I am becoming very fond of these depictions of certain time periods using real life crime as the starting point – Val McDermid’s The Long Drop was particularly effective.

    1. Yes, that’s right, you’ve read a number of those. I was somewhat more reluctant to approach these kind of works, but they can be very effective.

  13. Sounds like a great book, even though I have been suspicious of true crime for some time now. Glad to hear this focuses on the main character and her condition as a woman rather than on the gory details of the event.

    1. Well, it’s a sort of fictionalised true crime, so anything is possible. I would have liked this to go even further perhaps in making us question our own assumptions, even in the present-day, and how we rush to snap judgements, but it’s still a powerful read.

      1. I’m really intrigued by it. Didn’t it made the Bayley’s Prize longlist? Seeing a true crime book there was surprising to say the least (but a happy moment nonetheless!). Another book to buy in the UK!

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