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.