Emma Flint’s debut was longlisted for both this year’s Baileys Prize and the Desmond Elliott Prize, so I expected big things. Little Deaths is based on the true story of Alice Crimmins, a mother accused of killing her own children back in the 1960s. I enjoy novels based on true crime but think they work best where they show us more than we could discover from a Wikipedia search or from reading a non-fiction account of the same case. I loved Anna Mazzola’s The Unseeing, to give a recent example.
Ruth Malone lives with her two children, Frankie and Cindy, in Queens, New York. It’s 1965 and she’s recently separated from her husband. The pair are currently fighting over custody of the children. She works as a waitress and has had several boyfriends, mostly married men who she met at work. One morning in July she wakes up to find the children missing. The police begin a search, canvassing the neighbourhood for clues and information. They find Cindy’s body first, then Frankie’s weeks later. The story is then split between following Ruth as she deals with this horrifying situation, and novice tabloid reporter, Pete Wonicke who is sent to cover the case.
Having had a quick glance online, it seems that Flint has stuck quite closely to the Crimmins case in terms of the timeline of events (though she does give us a concrete answer as to what actually happened to the Malone’s children). The novel is very well written, and well researched. Flint writes dialogue that sounds like a 1960s TV detective series, not always realistic but evocative of both era and location. Occasionally though the characters came off as caricatures rather than real people, and I wished she’d done more with Devlin, the lead detective, who I found very two dimensional with his one track determination to punish Ruth for being a bad mother.
I really enjoyed the first third of the novel, but once the initial shock wears off and we move into the humdrum of Ruth and Pete’s lives over the following months, I had a problem with the pacing. The middle did slump for me, and Pete’s frenzied running around, desperate to find clues, was not as exciting as it could have been. The women were not distinct enough, and Ruth’s various boyfriends merged together. Too many conversations in bars or diners became tedious. While I appreciate that the real life case did follow a slow course, this is a novel and to my mind you can then do what you want with it. I also wanted more from the main characters. I wanted to know what drove Ruth to go looking for companionship with these men, even when she knew the police were staking out her house. It’s not normal behaviour and I wanted some understanding of what she was looking for in these meaningless encounters. We get a good sense that she is insecure in her body. She worries about body odour and makes sure the light is out when she brings the men home. I was waiting to discover more of her family history. There seemed to be issues between her and her mother, but it was skimmed over. A missed opportunity.
The novel examines the role of a woman, specifically one who is also a wife and mother. We get the gossip of the neighbourhood women who think Ruth’s a tramp and can’t sing her abandoned husband’s praises loudly enough. Devlin calls Ruth a whore because she doesn’t comply with his view of what a good mother should be. All of this is what was said of the real life Alice Crimmins and it all fits. What jarred for me by the end of the book was Pete. He becomes so obsessed by Ruth that nothing matters. He spends his own money on helping her and fantasises about sleeping with her. It’s written as though Ruth has some superhuman sexual power over men (apart from those who want to convict her, who are in a polar opposite mind frame). For me, the novel began to lose its strength at this point, and Pete became just plain creepy.
Rounding up, this is a very well written novel and is an enjoyable read. Just don’t expect any great revelations on gender roles or deviation from the bare bones of what was a fascinating real life murder case.