Little Deaths

It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery.

Noting Ruth’s perfectly made-up face and provocative clothing, the empty liquor bottles and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions, fuelled by neighbourhood gossip and speculation. Sent to cover the case on his first major assignment, tabloid reporter Pete Wonicke at first can’t help but do the same. But the longer he spends watching Ruth, the more he learns about the darker workings of the police and the press. Soon, Pete begins to doubt everything he thought he knew.

Ruth Malone is enthralling, challenging and secretive – is she really capable of murder?

This is the kind of book that you know after three paragraphs you’re not going to be able to put down. When I fall for a writer, I fall hard and this was love at first read.

Emma Flint completed the ‘Writing a Novel’ course at Faber Academy in July 2013 and was offered representation by nine UK agents on the strength of the first three chapters of Little Deaths. Once you’ve read it, you’ll see why. Ruth Malone is mesmerising. Luminous, fragile and mysterious, she captivates us as much as she does investigative journalist Pete Wonike as we experience the nightmare she is tangled up in as her life unravels before our eyes.

The fact that Emma Flint has based this novel on a true story is even more tantalising as everyone who knows me is well aware of the lure of a gripping crime story for me as I lose myself in unravelling the layers of ‘truth’ at its heart. Even though this is a very different story, both in terms of its setting and characters, from the tale of Edith Thompson  Read more here it enthralled me in the same way as it explored the way that women are judged by society if their sexuality or conduct is viewed as unacceptable in the eyes of the people  around them.

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Readers seem to have had a mixed response to the character of Ruth and I think this pays testament to how fantastic Flint’s writing is. People react to Ruth’s character as if she is a real person: we are drawn in by her tragic story, refracted through the eyes of the many ‘witnesses’ in the novel who decide on something as vital as her guilt or innocence because of her hemline or the number of layers of mascara she is seen wearing.

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Ruth Malone is a woman who defies expectations and  pays the price. Her life, in sixties Queens, has been lovingly recreated as stunningly as the MadMen production team brought advertising’s decades to life and we see Ruth move within her setting just as clearly. Ruth has transgressed from the role set out for her by her gender and social class and her treatment by the press, law enforcement and her neighbours reflect their inability to see her beautifully maintained apearance as anything other than a subtle indication of her guilt

Emma Flint draws us into her Ruth’s world whilst holding us at arms length too, which Ruth does to everyone – even her own mother. The mystery at the heart of who Ruth actually is is such a fantastic technique to draw us closer to her whilst never really knowing her too.  I found myself watching her every movement to see if I could catch a glimpse of the real Ruth hiding below the perfectly made up face. Her physical beauty is merely a veneer, hiding the emotional damage beneath and Flint skilfully leaves us to respond to Ruth in our own way and speculate about the nature of her involvement in her children’s disappearance without serving us up a neatly boxed ‘answer’– a very clever method of engaging us with Ruth’s story, without treading on the past and ‘solving’ the story which inspired her to write Little Deaths.

The representation of the grubby world of ambitious journalist Wonicke and his obsession with investigating the unfolding story is a perfect counterpoint to Ruth’s own tale. We see his very clear internal dilemma as he is torn between building a career and reputation for himself in the media of New York and  reporting the truth about a woman he is clearly mesmerised by. He knows that his editor wants salacious gossip that will shift newspapers but he is drawn like a moth to a flame to gaze at Ruth through her lighted window as he tried to uncover the truth beneath the spin. Flint’s representation of this side of the story does show how the press conducts its own trial regardless of the facts of the story and lets us see the contemporary ‘judgement’ of Ruth at uncomfortably close quarters.

Devlin’s instinctive disapproval of Ruth as the investigative officer allows us even more insight to the way that even the justice system can be influenced by external appearances. Ruth’s refusal to conform to his idea of how an an innocent woman should behave or dress damns her utterly in his eyes. His views are echoed by the neighbours shifting voices as they respond to how she looks first and the truth rather more distantly. I was totally transfixed. It was like the best theatre – you experienced it in so many was all at once that it was only at the end that you were able to reflect on it

Emma Flint is incredibly talented. She draws the reader into Ruth’s world and forces you to experience these events with her. Whether you can retain sympathy for her or not by the end will be a very personal response and this is one of the novel’s key strengths: Little Deaths forces you to respond and once you’re drawn in it won’t let you go easily.

Flint also acknowledges her inspiration for  Ruth’s tale – for others like me who were engrossed in reading about the events which inspired Little Deaths. This added another dimension to my enjoyment of the book as I wasn’t forced out of the book’s ‘world’ once I finished reading it which can be so hard to do if you’ve enjoyed a book. My post-reading hours were spent researching articles about the original story and thinking about the way that Flint has brought the events to life and imagining who I’d cast if I was putting it on stage or film too…

I can see this being a book that I come back to as well as one that I’ll be begging other people to read.

Thank you to the lovely people at @Netgalley and @PanMacmillan for providing me with a digital copy in return for a fair review. It’s such a gorgeous looking book that I’ll be wasting no time in buying a real copy as soon as it’s published in January.

I loved discovering that Emma Flint and I studied at the same university and are drawn to the same crime stories. Emma has also been very lovely on Twitter and it’s been so exciting to have her engage with my reading responses in real time and reply too. If you’re not already following her, you definitely should be…

Author On The Shelf:

Emma was born and grew up in Newcastle upon Tyne.  After graduating from the University of St. Andrews with an MA in English Language and Literature, she embarked on a career as a Technical Author: firstly in Edinburgh and now in London.

Away from her day job, she’s developed an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-life murder cases and of notorious historical figures, as well as a fascination with unorthodox women – past, present and fictional.   In her writing, she likes to poke around the darker reaches of the human mind, and to explore what people are capable of under extreme circumstances.

Little Deaths is her first novel.

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Purchase Link : Little Deaths

Website : Emma Flint

Twitter : @flint_writes

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