It's hard to read Emma Flint's Little Deaths and not have in mind the actual case that was the inspiration for it. Even though Flint's novel is fictionalized it does closely parallel many of the facts of what occurred in 1965. While I didn't read about the crime and subsequent investigation before reading the novel, and since finishing the book have only read the barest minimum (fiction should always stand on its own, I think), I had seen photos of Alice Crimmins and read Sarah Weinstein's Q&A with author Emma Flint. So it was all running in the back of my mind while reading.
In the novel a young mother, Ruth Malone, is accused of murdering her two small children. One hot summer night in Queens, NYC the two children are found to be missing from their bedroom. The window is open, the screen removed, a baby carriage set beneath their window as if they might simply have crawled out. But the chest of drawers in front of the window is dusty as though it had not been cleaned for weeks. How could two small children possibly leave their apartment without anyone seeing them or anything in their room being disturbed.
Ruth, separated from her husband, is an attractive waitress, whose dress and actions are considered provocative. She's petite, well coiffed and always attractively dressed. And her liaisons with men not her husband notoriously well known. She had left the apartment briefly the night before to take the dog for a walk. In the morning she finds the open window and empty beds and goes into a frenzy looking for her children. I mention her dress and looks first, because in this story, in this America of the mid-1960s, Ruth Malone was not considered a proper mother. Not only is she not considered proper, but she's considered downright wanton. A liar. A woman more concerned with her boyfriends and her carefully made up face than with the well-being of her two children.
First her four-year-old daughter Cindy is found dead. Ruth literally being dragged by the police to view her little body and forced to take it all in rather as a criminal looking at her handiwork than a grieving mother who has lost her children. And then a few weeks later the older brother, Frankie, is found in a field covered with leaves. These were excruciating scenes to read about as you might imagine both for obvious reasons but also for how a woman was treated before even any real evidence was leveled against her.
The story follows both the investigation into Ruth's movements and actions as well as a young and very green reporter, Peter Wonicke, who hopes the investigation will give him his first breakout story. And more painful to read are the sections with the detectives as they investigate the murder and pointedly look for evidence against Ruth. And only against Ruth.
"Bitch did it. No doubt. You seen how she looks coming in and out of the station--face all made up and hair done. She never cried for 'em. Not once."
"She don't look like a woman should look when her kids go missing. She works nights. Two little kids and she's a waitress in some goddam bar."
"And the apartment was a mess--a ton of empty liquor bottles in the trash. There was brandy on her breath at eleven in the morning. Turns out she's got a record as well. We've had guys from station at that address a few times. Noise, drinking, all that."
It's obvious what the police think as they build their case against her. There is not much real investigating actually done, rather they look for evidence against Ruth in order to railroad her through the system. It's hard to tell whether she's on trial for murder or whether she's really on trial for being an independent young single mother who snubs her nose at the system. A woman who has too many boyfriends, dresses too trendily in revealing clothes and leads a somewhat dissolute life. Of course what they don't see are the lonely moments, the moments of a woman alone and without family or friends to support her. But then they don't want to see those moments and wouldn't believe them even if they did.
Cringeworthy are the stories Peter Wonicke begins to write.
"While her estranged husband was speaking to reporters, Mrs. Malone, a petite strawberry blonde, attended another interview at Fresh Meadows police station. She was freshly made up with lipstick and eyeliner and wore a fashionable blue skirt, matching heels and a low-necked cream-colored blouse. Mrs. Malone left the station house at 4:50 p.m. and was driven away by a male friend."
Not a descriptive word about the father (except his obvious despair), his looks or his actions. Imagine Ruth, in her "fashionable blue skirt and matching heels", being questioned at the police station surrounded by a group of white male detectives towering over the diminutive woman. I couldn't help thinking of this photo of more white males making sweeping judgements and resolutions on the health and well-being of contemporary women and their "values" with not a single woman in sight. It makes me shudder to think how little has changed even if the situations are different. When will women stop being judged by the clothes they wear, whether they have boyfriends or how independent and outspoken they may be.
The story does take some interesting turns with the trial and Peter Wonicke's growing fascination which really verges on obsession of Ruth. I won't give anymore away. I don't think the story could have ended any other way. Needless to say it is one that is tinged in sadness. Did Ruth do it? Her story/alibi is littered with inconsistencies that rather favor her being guilty than innocent--depending on how you bend the facts. The crime is resolved in this story. Whether she did it or not (and whether the real Alice Crimins did it or not), no one goes through what she did and remains unscathed.
I believe this is Emma Flint's first novel and an impressive one it is. It makes for compelling reading and I was pleased to see it on the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction longlist. Surely it asks a lot of questions about women's place in society, how they are treated and how as women we treat each other. Sadly it did not make the shortlist, but it's well worth seeking out in any case.