LITTLE DEATHS, by Emma Flint. Hachette Books, 320 pp., $26.
In Emma Flint’s “Little Deaths,” a tabloid editor insists that readers want three things: “They want to see the money. Or the lack of it. To feel envious, or superior.
“They want sex. There’s always a hot dame. Or a dame we can work up into hot. There’s always an angle we can use. And every story needs a bad guy. Every story needs fear.”
Rookie reporter Pete Wonicke wheedled his way into a story that had a “hot dame” and bad guy (or, here, gal) in a strawberry blond cocktail waitress suspected of murdering her 5-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. It’s 1965, long before DNA evidence and security cameras on every corner, and all the cops have is Ruth Malone’s word that she put her children to bed in their Queens apartment and woke to find their room empty.
“She don’t look how a woman should look when her kids go missing,” a detective sneers, noting her lack of tears and dismissing her fainting as a ploy for the cameras. Ruth, 26, is separated from her husband, and everything about her — throaty voice, figure-flattering clothes, carefully applied makeup, teased hair, and taste for drink and the company of men — angers and appalls the police who consider her the lone suspect.
“Little Deaths” charts Ruth’s life under surveillance — by cops, reporters, nosy neighbors and others — even as it tracks Pete’s obsession with the case. A veteran reporter tells him: “I know it ain’t that big a story yet. But it will be. You got two dead kids, no witnesses, and a hot broad who’s slept with half of New York. If it ever goes to trial, it’ll be . . . dynamite.”
What is dynamite is first-time novelist Flint’s ability to strike a match on page one and keep the flame burning for the next 300 pages. She salts the book with plenty of characters and details, such as the box and stroller under the siblings’ bedroom window and the passing mention of the nearby New York World’s Fair, which may or may not prove critical in identifying the killer.
She doesn’t stiff readers, but Flint does make them wait, almost until the end, to reveal the who, what, when, where, why and how. It may not make you gasp, but it likely will shock or surprise you, even if you’re a seasoned mystery fan.
That is just one mark of a skilled storyteller and Flint, a native of northeast England working as a technical writer in London, proves that herself — tapping into her lifelong fascination with true crime accounts, murder cases and unorthodox women.
Among them, acknowledged at book’s end, is Alice Crimmins, whose young son and daughter were murdered after they went missing from their ground-floor bedroom in 1965 Queens. Called “shapely and flame-haired,” she was vilified and tried in her children’s deaths. The crime inspired movies, plays and other novels, including Mary Higgins Clark’s “Where Are the Children?”
Flint dramatically describes the damaging disconnect between how the world sees and judges Ruth and the emotional storm raging inside. At her daughter’s wake, mourners greet the composed woman in a black dress, half veil, black heels, and with a voice “harsh from smoking and from the effort of keeping the tears back.” In reality, though, “She wanted to break down. To fall to her knees, to scream, to beg, to bargain.”
“They’re all I’ve got. You can’t have them both — They’re all I’ve got!”
The fledgling reporter, meanwhile, undergoes his own transformation as he weighs his ambitions, assumptions and an ethical minefield of fake or distorted news, grievous loss and prejudiced punishments.