Q & A with Little Deaths author Emma Flint

Posted on 9th February 2017 by Sally Campbell & Martha Greengrass
The world of Emma Flint's debut Little Deaths is a stark, lonely, noirish place, brimming with guilt and suspicion. Based on the real life murder trial of Alice Crimmins for the deaths of her two young children, the story plays out during the unforgiving New York heatwave of 1965. At the centre of this searing, gripping mystery is Flint's haunting portrayal of the mother, fictionalised as Ruth Malone; it is her unconventional behaviour, heavy make-up and 'cheap perfume' that seal her fate as the police - and the media's - main suspect. As the Guardian notes, 'Flint pulls the reader into the finely observed working-class Queens neighbourhood, where... the social surveillance of women is palpable.'  

Waterstones Online's Martha Greengrass caught up with Flint to discuss her vivid portrait of a woman's trial-by-media and explore why true crimes such as this still resonate half a century later.

Photo: Wake Up in New York, 1969 (c) Tony Hall

You’ve written about why certain true crime stories linger in the public imagination, you commented that: ‘the violent details of the crimes themselves are arguably less interesting than the way that ordinary life can co-exist with the business of murder.’ Little Deaths is based on a real murder case, what was it that made this story stand out for you and made you want to explore it in fiction?

I first read about the case that inspired Little Deaths when I was about sixteen, and there were two details in particular that stayed with me for twenty years. One was an image of a striking petite woman, stumbling along a sunny sidewalk, eyes downcast, surrounded by large bulky men in suits. This turned out to be a photograph of the character who became Ruth Malone, moments after she'd been taken to see the recently-discovered body of her murdered daughter. I realised that I wanted to convey that juxtaposition of physical frailty with emotional toughness: despite the circumstances, she refused to cry for the cameras.

The other detail I remembered was the discrepancy between what 'Ruth' said she fed the children the night before they died, and what was found during the autopsies on their bodies. I knew that whatever I wrote would need to offer a credible solution to that discrepancy.

The novel feels intensely authentic and is rich with visceral detail; a reader stepping into this world feels completely immersed in the embrace of an oppressive New York summer. How did you go about creating such a completely absorbing and realistic backdrop? How did you recreate very distinctive American voices as a British writer?

Thank you – I’m delighted that you felt that. I read two outstanding books on the original case - which I mention in the acknowledgements - 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.

Ruth is a fascinating and complex character; she’s one of a cast of fairly morally ambiguous figures in the novel. How important was it to you when writing this book that your readers were able to see both sides of Ruth’s story? How did her character, and how you wanted to portray her, develop and change as you wrote the book?

I don’t expect I’ll ever be lucky enough to have this experience again, but Ruth leapt fully-formed into my head and didn’t change in the six years that I spent writing her story. From day one, she was ambiguous, mysterious and deliberately evasive – and it was always vital that she shouldn't be either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is absolutely key that the question of how complicit she is in the children’s deaths is one that readers should find difficult to answer definitely.

There’s a subtle and very effective interplay in this book between the perspective of a voyeuristic onlooker, particularly the reporter Pete Wonicke, and Ruth’s own perspective. Why did you choose to structure the narrative in this way?

I realised very early on that I needed two narrators: there are parts of the story that Ruth doesn’t have the knowledge to tell from her perspective. The decision to make my second narrator a reporter came a couple of years in, but as soon as I realised that’s what Pete was, it made complete sense. He has to be a reporter because of the way that Ruth’s story plays out in the media, and he has to be male because it’s men who judge her publicly, while the women in the novel judge her privately.

This style of narrative makes the reader party to acts of voyeurism, making them complicit with the prevailing public stance on the murder, how comfortable are you as a writer with making your readers uncomfortable?

The book deals with uncomfortable subjects: the murder of two children; a woman judged on her appearance; loneliness; obsession. It makes sense that readers should sometimes feel uncomfortable when considering these ideas - when you’re ‘witnessing’ a crime, even a fictional one, and even as a reader, you should be uncomfortable. Murder is not a comfortable topic – and reading about it is an experience that should make you question what you believe is right and wrong.

You manage to give a very vivid sense of a violent crime without in-depth descriptions of the murders themselves or the more graphic details of the crime’s discovery. Was it a deliberate decision to choose not to focus on those aspects of the story? How difficult is it when writing a crime novel to balance creating authentic detail with evading unnecessary prurience?

It was a deliberate decision. The deaths of the children are obviously key to the plot, but graphic details of how they were killed or what their bodies looked like when they were discovered are neither useful nor necessary. These were real children, killed at the ages of four and five, and dwelling on the details of their deaths in that way is not something I feel comfortable with. In my next book – also based on a true case – the victim is an adult, and I've been surprised by how much more comfortable I feel writing about the manner of that character’s death.

The novel is a period piece but there were various moments, particularly the representation of a ‘trial by media’ where I felt it could easily have been a contemporary novel. To what extent do you think of the novel as a historical piece?

Oddly enough, I don’t think of it as a historical piece at all now. I did when I was researching it, but spending so much time with Ruth made her very real and very immediate to me. And then reading 21st century tabloid descriptions of women in the public eye - particularly women associated with crimes (Amanda Knox, Kate McCann) - made me realise that this isn't a historical problem. The issue of 'trial by media', of women being judged on how they look, is still unfortunately very relevant today.

There’s something of the feel of classic, vintage noir to this novel, it’s cinematic in its scope. Did you deliberately want to recreate that feeling for Little Deaths? What were your inspirations in creating the mood of the book?

My inspirations for the way Ruth dances and talks and flirts and moves were women from 1940s and 1950s American noir films: Gilda, Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon, Laura Manion in Anatomy of a Murder - and also characters from more recent films like LA Confidential and The Last Seduction.

Having said that, I don't think I deliberately set out to create a particular mood. There were certain scenes in Ruth's narrative - for example, the scene where she gets drunk and dances alone in her apartment - that are key to understanding her character, and that came into my mind fully-formed and very clear. All I did was describe what I could see in my imagination.



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