Little Deaths by Emma Flint: Book Review

Little Deaths by Emma Flint Book review

What is this about?: Ruth Malone, whose two kids were kidnapped and killed, is immediately assumed as guilty of the crime. And, Pete Wonicke, a newbie reporter who grows disturbingly obsessed with Ruth as her trial progresses.

What else is this about?: What happens to a woman when she doesn’t fit the male definition of what a woman should be. It’s disturbing and sadly still relevant.

Blurb: 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.

As police investigate the murders, the detritus of Ruth’s life is exposed. Seen through the eyes of the cops, the empty bourbon bottles and provocative clothing which litter her apartment, the piles of letters from countless men and Ruth’s little black book of phone numbers, make her a drunk, a loose woman–and therefore a bad mother. The lead detective, a strict Catholic who believes women belong in the home, leaps to the obvious conclusion: facing divorce and a custody battle, Malone took her children’s lives.

Pete Wonicke is a rookie tabloid reporter who finagles an assignment to cover the murders. Determined to make his name in the paper, he begins digging into the case. Pete’s interest in the story develops into an obsession with Ruth, and he comes to believe there’s something more to the woman whom prosecutors, the press, and the public have painted as a promiscuous femme fatale. Did Ruth Malone violently kill her own children, is she a victim of circumstance–or is there something more sinister at play?

Inspired by a true story, Little Deaths, like celebrated novels by Sarah Waters and Megan Abbott, is compelling literary crime fiction that explores the capacity for good and evil in us all.

It’s frightening how relevant Little Deaths is. Based on the real life case of Alice Crimmins , Little Deaths is the story of Ruth, whose kids are killed and who the police worked hard to make the guilty party rather that find the actual killer simply because she didn’t fit their idea of what a wife, mother and woman should be.

Given the times, that sort of sexism is a given, I think. The casual, natural tenor of the male characters’ assumptions about Ruth and her character are sexist and there is no respite from them in the book, because Ruth has none.

It’s hard not to link this book and Ruth’s treatment to our world today — pussy-grabbers in power are making assumptions about women and decisions for them as we speak. Movie moguls are wielding their power over actresses and their careers. Ruth doesn’t stand a chance in the book against the male cops who decided she was guilty. They didn’t understand she was lost, grief-stricken at the deaths of her children. All that matters to the cops is that she isn’t displaying what they think a woman and mother’s grief should look like.

They didn’t look to her history, or realise that she was broken long before the children were killed. Or that she wanted more than her marriage and her husband offered her and she didn’t know how to get it or to fix herself or her life. It’s not that she’s a saint — she drinks (too much) and is gleeful when she realises Frank, her husband, won’t have any chance to get the kids from her in their looming custody battle. Flint has created a real, complicated woman in Ruth with weaknesses. But all everyone else sees is a beautiful woman, with too teased hair and too much make-up and the wrong kind of clothes for a woman whose children are dead.

Everyone has a picture of what Ruth should be, but no one actually investigates who she really is. Not even the reporter in the story, Pete. He is obsessed. The case – Ruth – consumes him, and he feels frustrated and slighted when she is with someone else that isn’t him. He is as malignant as the cops seeking to frame for her children’s deaths. Good sense might prevail for him, and in the end he and her female friends are the lone voices shouting her innocence. Peter is young in the story and that tinges his character for me somewhat, but it isn’t an excuse for him either. His obsession is creepy.

The story is hard to read because more than the actual investigation into the case, this is a character exploration — of Ruth, the time and the men then who controlled what happened to her. And then add to this the realisation that this is what Alice Crummins actually did go through.  But it’s also a testament to the power of Emma Flint’s writing and her ability to weave this world and it’s characters that will break your heart and make you wonder about where your present is going.

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