Set in the mid-1960s, ‘Little Deaths’ by Emma Flint tells the story of Ruth Malone, a 26-year-old recently divorced single mother whose two young children Cindy and Frankie go missing from their home in Queens, New York. After they are both found dead in separate locations days later, it doesn’t take long for the police to suspect that Ruth had something to do with their disappearance. However, in the absence of any hard evidence, they draw their conclusions purely from what they consider to be her stylish appearance and unconventional behaviour following the murders. Meanwhile, local journalist Pete Wonicke becomes determined to prove Ruth’s innocence.
‘Little Deaths’ is based on a true story, inspired by the murder trial of Alice Crimmins who was accused of killing her two children in similar circumstances. The first half of ‘Little Deaths’ unravels slowly, making the point repeatedly that Ruth is treated unfairly by her neighbours, the press and the police because of their biased assumptions and rigid expectations. On the surface, Ruth appears to be completely detached from what has happened. She refuses to play the victim, doesn’t show her grief in the ways that people expect, continues to go to work at a cocktail bar, has affairs, drinks a lot and makes an effort with her appearance. The story is largely told from Pete’s perspective which keeps the reader at arm’s length from Ruth and adds further mystery to the reasons behind her actions and what she may or may not be capable of.
Despite the very evocative setting during a time when the United States was undergoing a huge amount of social change, the public shaming aspect of Ruth’s case feels all too relevant. There are an alarming number of parallels regarding the portrayal and scrutiny of women in general as well as those perceived to be victims in similar real-life cases today, whether it is by powerful media outlets with a large audience or lone internet trolls. It shocked me more when I realised that I wasn’t that surprised by how Ruth was treated by those around her and that such prejudice still exists albeit in different forms.
Flint’s careful unveiling of Ruth’s character is compelling and her debut novel is an intriguing exploration of how outward appearances are not always what they seem. ‘Little Deaths’ will be published in the UK on 12th January. Many thanks to Pan Macmillan for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.