Little Deaths by Emma Flint

Image result for little deaths emma flintSometimes I start reading a book and within just a couple of pages, immediately feel part of the protagonist's world. That was definitely the case with Emma Flint's Little Deaths, an intense, noirish tale of Ruth Malone, suspected of murdering her two children during an unbearably hot New York summer in 1965. Little Deaths is packed with atmospheric details that perfectly evoke both the period and place of the book's setting, and Ruth herself is a pin-sharp portrait of a troubled character who suffers for failing to conform to the norms of a perfect housewife and mother.

Separated but not divorced from her husband Frank, she works as a cocktail waitress, has a string of boyfriends, occasionally drinks too heavily, wears figure-hugging clothes and always has a perfectly made-up face. She's not popular with the other women in her close-knit Queens neighbourhood, especially after it transpires she sometimes leaves her small children, Frankie and Cindy, alone in their bedroom while she goes out. When Frankie and Cindy disappear one evening and are subsequently found dead on nearby waste ground, the detective in charge of the investigation is convinced Ruth - composed and immaculate in every interview and dressed up to the nines at the funeral - is responsible. A young reporter, Pete Wonicke, thinks the case could be his big break as a journalist, and dutifully covers the story in the way his editor wants - focusing on Ruth as a glamorous good-time girl rather than a grieving mother. But the more Pete becomes fascinated by Ruth, the more he wonders if the police are on the right track at all.

Partly based on a true story, Little Deaths is a truly fascinating insight into a character whose principal crime is, in fact, simply not to behave as she's expected to: her grieving is done privately and her comfort and self-worth comes from picking up men in bars simply because she can't bear to be alone. Nobody can understand why Ruth would have left dependable, well-meaning Frank to scrape a living serving drinks to married men in bars; nobody can see that her clothes and make-up are a form of protective armour, and that being smartly turned-out and made-up is simply her way of managing. The police, the media and her neighbours all have judgements to make which have little to do with the case itself and everything to do with Ruth's lifestyle and coping mechanisms. Sexism and misogyny have a huge part to play here too, particularly in the context of the expectations of the time.

Although this is a crime story, it's character-driven rather than heavily reliant on the mystery itself, the resolution of which really feels secondary. Each character is beautifully crafted. Ruth herself, in particular, is complex and flawed and almost steps off the page as you read. Reporter Wonicke is also wholly credible, as are Ruth's humiliated ex-husband Frank and the corrupt, misogynist police detective Devlin.

The details of period and location are absolutely perfect throughout - you can almost feel the sticky city heat and hear the sounds of Ruth's neighbours drifting down to her apartment in the block where they all live in claustrophobically close proximity. This book is full of smoke-filled newspaper offices, old-school American diners and late-night cocktail bars with waitresses in tight pencil skirts. It's not particularly fast-paced, but it doesn't need to be: it's evocative and immersive and an excellent read for a hot summer day.