Our Expat Book Club book for April was ‘Little Deaths‘ by Emma Flint. I am the first to admit that thrillers are not my usual genre of choice, and I also tend to steer clear of books where children are victims of crimes. And yet this novel, which follows the story of a mother whose two young children are murdered, had me hooked.
The reason for this? Well firstly, we already know the horrific fate of the children. We are not left desperately turning the pages hoping they live, and there is no gory-fication (not a real word but it should be) of the murders. Instead, ‘Little Deaths’ focuses on their mother, Ruth, and the way she is perceived and treated by the police, the press and the people in her neighbourhood.
Secondly, the writing is so assured that I couldn’t believe it was Flint’s first novel. Ruth’s world of 1960s working class New York is brilliantly observed; as a reader you are drawn right in. You can feel the relentless heat of the summer, hear the Queens’ accents, and see how the women in the neighbourhood watch and judge Ruth.
I was also drawn in by the fact that the novel is based on a real case which gripped America in the late 1960s. Alice Crimmins was the divorced mother of two young children. One night the children disappeared and were later found dead. Crimmins maintained her innocence but two years later – based on flimsy and circumstantial evidence – she was convicted. This was later overturned, and then she was found guilty again…and later released on parole. Did she do it? Well, she was definitely guilty of being a very attractive woman who flouted the norms of the time – she had affairs, she stayed out late, she drank. It seems the police and the press pinned the murders on her right from the start.
In ‘Little Deaths’ Flint shows how Ruth is watched and judged by everyone; we see how the tabloid press reduce her to a femme fatale to sell papers and how she is immediately presumed guilty because she does not fit into the ‘good mother’ mould.
I loved Flint’s evocation of time and place, and how she gradually built up a portrait of Ruth so that we could see behind the ‘mask’ she put on. Ruth’s grief – and attempts to numb her pain with sex and alcohol – are compellingly written. Some of our book club members found it a little slow in parts; I would also say that, for me, this was more a psychological drama than a ‘thriller’. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed it so much.
I was thrilled when the author, Emma Flint, agreed to take some questions from The Expat Book Club. We discussed these responses during our live chat, but here they are in full. Thank you to Emma for being so gracious with her time and answering every question that we put to her!
The Expat Book Club Interview Questions with Emma Flint
‘Little Deaths’ is your debut novel; how long have you been writing for?
I’ve always written – ever since I knew what stories were, really – but I started to write seriously in my thirties. I began Little Deaths in 2010 and finished it in 2016.
We have lots of writers as well as readers in the group; do you have any advice for people who are working on their first book?
I believe that the most important thing is to read as much as you can, as often as you can. Read to find which writers you love, and work out why you love them. Find writers you don’t like, and work out why. Read other books in the genre you’re working in, and read outside your area of interest. Read poetry to find new ways of using language. Read drama to understand dialogue. Read non-fiction to give your fiction credibility and authenticity.
I’d also recommend finding a writing group. It’s impossible to write a first novel in isolation: you need support and you need feedback from readers you trust. I also needed the accountability of writing a certain number of words for my writing groups by a certain date. Most people write a first novel about something they’re passionate about, and you need the objective judgement of others to tell you whether that passion translates to the page.
It helps to find a routine that works for you – whether that’s writing 1000 words a day, or 5000 words a week, or spending ten hours a week with your novel. Work out when you’re most productive. Set aside lunchtimes or two evenings a week or find childcare for half a day each weekend – but carve out the time and then use it.
And above all, don’t give up. Writing can be a long slow process – it took me three years to write a full first draft, and there were eleven more drafts before it was finished. To make time for that amount of work, you have to believe completely in what you’re doing and that you feel you have a story to tell that only you can tell. That belief will get you through the rejections and the lack of free time and the slog and the utter exhaustion. Belief in what you’re doing will also help you decide whether the criticism you’ll get is fair or not: only you can know if changes that others suggest are right for your book.
You must have done lots of research into the case of Alice Crimmins and the murders of her children. Do you have any theories on what really happened? I realise this is an unfair question, but it is one we have all been asking each other!
I obviously don’t know the truth of what happened to the Crimmins children – and unfortunately it’s very unlikely that any more will be learned about their deaths, beyond what was uncovered during the investigation and the trial. But my starting point with the book was that it didn’t seem that the police had looked at other suspects. Because it took so long to get enough evidence to bring Alice to trial, and because it took three court cases to return a guilty verdict, I felt there must be other versions that were at least as plausible as the official version. I wanted to write a book that felt like it could be true, both in terms of the evidence found, and from a psychological perspective – and that’s where the idea for my ending came from.
One of our members gave the following summation of ‘Little Deaths’; ‘It was the patriarchal Madonna/whore dichotomy — women were expected to be either modest, saintly angels to be placed on a pedestal or to be sinful beyond all redemption. That a woman could enjoy her independence and explore her sexuality yet still love her children simply didn’t fit into his world view. Once she was shown to be unfaithful, she was seen as capable of any crime’. Would you agree with this?
Absolutely – I think this is a great way of looking at it. There’s a line in the book: ‘a bitch like that is capable of anything’ – and I had that in mind the whole time I was writing. Unfortunately some of that attitude is still prevalent today: look at the way the appearance of Kate McCann was analysed in the media alongside the disappearance of her daughter Madeleine. Or the way Amanda Knox’s sex life was discussed in articles about the murder of Meredith Kercher. Appearance and sexuality are clearly irrelevant to guilt or innocence, but they’re often discussed as though they can provide clues to a crime, especially when a woman is the prime suspect.
I was drawn to the story because of the sense of injustice that pervaded it, and because of my impression that the real-life Ruth was condemned for who she was, rather than what she’d done. I’m not sure that society, particularly certain areas of the media, has moved on a great deal in that respect over the past fifty years: I wanted to highlight how women are often still judged on their appearance and their sexuality more than anything else.
The opening chapter of ‘Little Deaths’, where the children go missing, is a frightening scenario, yet the book is attracting lots of interest from our book club (no doubt it includes parents). What made you write about this topic? (Question from Carmela)
I first read about it when I was sixteen, and the details stayed with me until I began to write the book that would become Little Deaths.
I was fascinated by a woman who could become the chief suspect in the murders of her children before the police even had confirmation they were dead. Little Deaths was borne out of my fascination with this ambiguous woman: she was a wife, brought up a Catholic and married in a Catholic church – yet she was separated from her husband and had multiple lovers. She was a mother who claimed to be devoted to her children, yet she worked long shifts in a seedy bar instead of staying home to take care of them, and locked them in their bedroom for hours while she slept late. She was bereaved and supposedly grieving, yet she continued to dress provocatively and to apply her heavy mask of make-up in the days following the discovery of her children’s bodies.
What fascinated me about her was why she behaved the way she did. I wanted to know if there might be another story to tell, beyond the obvious surface details.
I thought ‘Little Deaths’ evoked a very strong sense of place and time, yet you are British, not American. Why did you choose to set it where and when you did? How did you go about doing the research for the background of the story? [I read a lot of historical fiction, so I’m used to authors making use of their imaginations, but this was set in a time period very different from today yet recent enough that plenty of people alive today remember it and would presumably catch any mistakes.] (Question from Susan)
Thank you – it’s very good to hear that Little Deaths conveys a strong sense of time and place. It wasn’t a conscious choice to write a book set in America more than 50 years ago, and had I known what a difficult task I was setting myself, I might have thought twice! It was more that I was interested in the story and in the character at the centre of it, and that story happened to be set in New York in the 60s.
I read two excellent books about the original case which I mention in the acknowledgements, as well as dozens of relevant newspaper articles, but most of my research was done online. I used Google Maps and Streetview to ‘walk’ down the streets in Queens where the story is set, to look up at the buildings, and try to get a sense of the neighbourhood where Ruth lives. I listened to Queens accents on YouTube, and I looked at thousands of photos of suburban America in the mid-60s.
I also kept thinking about my own childhood: I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb on the outskirts of a city. I think anyone who grew up in an environment like that will understand the closeness of that kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.
The next few questions and answers contain information about the plot…if you haven’t read the book yet, you might want to save these for later
What happened to Devlin in his past to make him have such a strong bias against Ruth, which meant that he didn’t follow up on other potential suspects? (Question from Charlie)
That’s a great question, and I’ve never been asked about Devlin before!
I couldn’t explore Devlin’s background too much, as the book isn’t about him, but he definitely has a skewed attitude towards women. One of the previous questions from this group asked about the Madonna / whore dichotomy: this is absolutely how he views women. Look at the way his wife is described, and how that contrasts with the way he talks about Ruth.
My own view is that he doesn’t understand Ruth – and therefore he’s afraid of her. He’s also more than a little obsessed with her himself: she’s so alien to anyone he’s ever been close to, that she holds a kind of fascination for him.
I was expecting Devlin to be involved into the murder. Did you think about him being the murderer and change her mind while writing ? Did she have the murderer in mind the whole time, or decide at the end of writing, à la Agatha Christie? (Question from Maike)
I knew who the guilty party would be the whole time I was writing Little Deaths – and in fact I wrote the last chapter when I was only about a third of the way through my first draft. I’ve done the same thing with my second book – having the resolution of the plot and the tone of the ending helps me to see what I’m writing towards.
I was really surprised by the twist at the end and I ruled him out early as he was so supportive of Ruth. I’d like to know whether there were character traits or hints I should have picked up earlier in the story? I liked the macaroni detail, anything else like that? (Question from Amy)
The macaroni detail is true: that’s actually one of the details that got me interested in the story in the first place. Alice Crimmins told the police that she’d fed the children veal and tinned green beans for their last meal, but the autopsy on her daughter found pasta in her stomach. And over the years between first reading about the case and writing Little Deaths, I kept returning to this discrepancy. Of all the lies that she could have told to cover up what happened, I couldn’t understand why she would she lie about that detail. It didn’t give her an alibi. It didn’t point the finger at another suspect. It was easily disproved. The question of why she told that particular lie was one I knew I had to answer through writing the book.
I did give a very subtle hint about the identity of the killer in a small contradiction between Ruth and Frank’s accounts of the night the children were taken.
Ruth says in her statement to the police that Frank called her at 3a.m., but Frank tells Pete that he went home at eleven forty-five and slept until Ruth called him in the morning.
Frank says himself in the final chapter:
‘ “I told the cops that I was in bed by midnight and that I never woke up till you called me in the morning. But you told ‘em about the call I made to you at three a.m. I realised I slipped up. I got scared. Worried they’d check the phone records. But you know, they never picked up on it. Or if they did, they didn’t care. They were so set on you being guilty, ‘specially when you wouldn’t take the lie detector test.”
She blinks. Answers almost automatically. “You didn’t take it either.”
He nods. Says, “Yeah, but they never asked me. And after you walked out of the test, the cops hardly noticed me at all.” ‘
I was curious about the reference to the World Fair in the story; it made me think the killer may have been a drifter with the fair? With the real life case, did any investigations lead to this theory? (Question from Allyson)
I believe the original investigation did consider the World Fair; however, as Devlin himself says, “Those apartment buildings: they’re packed in so tight no one can squeak in there without the whole neighbourhood knowing. If a car came along and parked by the building, or a stranger was there that night, someone would’ve seen them. Would’ve heard something. No doubt.”