Reviewed by Christy
In 1965, Alice Crimmins was charged with the murder of her 5 year old son and her 4 year old daughter. Though there was no physical evidence tying her to the crime, she was convicted anyway. Many believe that her unorthodox lifestyle, unorthodox for the 1960s anyway, is what initially attracted suspicion. She was a young mom going through a contentious divorce and custody battle. She liked to drink and enjoyed the company of many men. Some suspected she looked on her children as nuisances more than anything. Others believe she was railroaded due in large part to the prejudices of the time.
Emma Flint fictionalizes this true crime event in her novel Little Deaths. As the novel opens, we wake up with Ruth Malone in a jail cell. Then we wake up with her in her apartment in 1965 as she remembers her normal morning routine, including making coffee and avoiding looking at her reflection in the mirror until she has fully caked on her makeup. Little by little she takes us through the day leading up to her children’s disappearance from their bedroom. A window is open in the sweltering New York City heat (Flint writes this well. I felt like I needed a fan while reading.) Ruth thinks they’ve snuck out again and storms outside to hunt them down at one of the neighbor’s apartments. But she doesn’t find them. Eventually police are called. Suspicion falls on her.
As police zero in on Ruth, with tactics that include tailing her and bugging her apartment, the narrative shifts to a rookie reporter named Pete trying to catch his first big story. He finds it in Ruth, to the point where she becomes an obsession – and not merely in the professional sense. We, the readers, stay with Pete for quite a while. A little too much, actually. While there are times when it shifts back to Ruth, it is mainly through Pete’s investigative work that we learn a little bit more about Ruth’s life, personality, and outlook. But again, it’s through the prism of others’ eyes. It’s an interesting and, I assume, purposeful take, considering how heavily the real-life case hinged on rumors and people’s perception of the suspect. I didn’t mind that aspect so much but Pete’s obsession is creepy and, at the same time, a little dull. I didn’t care how he felt about her. He didn’t know her in the slightest. Everything he learned about her was from second hand sources, and he filled in the rest with his projections. I kept thinking how much more enjoyable it would’ve been if the reporter were female and sympathized with Ruth because of her unfair and sexist treatment by the press and police. At least it would’ve been a new approach to an old trope.
Ruth, however, is a little more interesting. She has an almost phobia of anyone thinking negatively about her but at the same time she refuses to bend to their will. She seems to hate herself more than anyone else could anyway. I wish we could’ve seen more of her. I was kind of underwhelmed by the book as a whole but the ending pushed the rating up a little for me just because I didn’t really see it coming. I wasn’t sure if the author would go the real-life route and leave it ambiguous but you do know for sure who killed those kids when you finish this book. And it is heartbreaking and frustrating.
To sum it up, the beginning and ending are interesting. The middle drags quite a bit. I wish we had more Ruth and social commentary and way less Pete.