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.

 

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My Favourite Scandinavian Crime Fiction

This is part of an article on Scandinavian crime fiction which I wrote during my seemingly endless offline period – actually, only about 2 1/2 weeks since I moved, but had no means of posting online.  Yes, I did not waste endless days on social forums and idle chat – but it will probably take me a few days just to wade through all th emails and interactions, to make sure that I don’t miss anything important.  And no, I did not finish my novel, although I did make some progress with it.  Having to live in boxes and using a box as a desk did not quite work for my fussy, pernickety creative muse!

What is it with the current obsession with Scandinavian crime fiction (loosely defined as crime fiction from those countries suffering bleak winters and darkness for half of the year)?  It’s not a new phenomenon: they are rooted in good ancient stock of storytelling in fur-lined caves around a campfire, when there is little to tempt you to go outside. The Gothic imagination of the North – the ghost stories of Scotland, Ireland and England, bloodthirsty Viking tales, the equally gory Nibelungensaga… Yet the latest batch of crime fiction emerges from societies that are well-ordered, neat and contained, where people consistenly report high levels of wellbeing (and fairness and equality) and where serious crime is fairly uncommon.  Murders are the exception here rather than the norm.  But it’s almost as though there is a fear that under the veneer of civilisation, that dark ancestral spirit is waiting to come out – as it sometimes does (I cannot tell you how devastated and puzzled Norwegian friends were about the shootings last summer).

It is nearly impossible (and not very productive) to lump together all Scandinavian crime fiction as a vast, amorphous mass: there are huge differences between Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell (both Swedish), not to mention between Iceland, Denmark and Norway. And I am not sure why Finland is habitually ignored and untranslated, as last time I looked, they too were part of Scandinavia, or at least as much as Iceland.  Yet if there is one thread that they all have in common, it is that they all use crime as a social commentary and in this sociological perspective they have all been influenced by the godparents of Scandinavian crime fiction: Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ.  Not as well-known as they deserve to be (perhaps because they are not easily available: thank you to Harper for their reissue of the whole series under the Perennial imprint in 2007, translated with great verve by Alan Blair, Joan Tate and Lois Roth).

Written in the late 1960s and early 1970s and reflecting that period of tremendous social change in Sweden and throughout the world, the so-called Martin Beck novels were planned as a series of ten novels by this husband and wife team (and Per Wahlӧӧ managed to live just long enough to complete the final novel in the series).  Much has been made of the authors’ Marxist sympathies and their criticism of the perceived failings of the Swedish social democratic welfare state.  But you will find no blatant propaganda beating you around the head here: merely razor-sharp observations, small details that can almost be overlooked, comments made by one or the other of the policemen or the people whom they interview.  All of which help to place the novels in their time frame, yet not enough to make them feel dated. And there is lots of humour, some gentle, some satirical.

Fifty years on, when the dysfunctional police team led by a middle-aged, sour-faced male detective with a troubled marriage have become clichés, it is hard to appreciate just how fresh and exciting these novels were when they first appeared.  Yet some of that freshness and novelty still comes through, even to (comparatively) younger readers like me, who were born after the novels were published, and who have been brought up on a steady diet of gloomy cities where even gloomier detectives investigate crimes that expose the underbelly of a society in decay.  The writing is sparse and powerful, no word is carelessly flung on the page.  Without fuss, extreme posturing or excessive interior monologues, we are privy to the complexities of characters in this ensemble piece (for, although Martin Beck is the main character, his colleagues Kollberg, Larsson, Melander and Rӧnn are well-rounded figures in themselves, rather than just convenient sidekicks).

It is hard to pick a favourite among all the books, but perhaps ‘The Man on the Balcony’ (third in the series) and ‘The Laughing Policeman’ (fourth) lingered most in my mind, although the series gets more ambitious,complex and darker as it progresses.

So, if you like crime fiction, if you like the Nordic countries, if you admire and devour  Jo Nesbo and Karin Fossum and all the other Scandinavian crime writers increasingly available in translation, then I do recommend going back to the source: Maj and Per. Their names almost say it all, don’t they?  The Ma and Pa of all the writers that came after them…