The atmosphere, attitude and ambiance in Emma Flint’s debut thriller, Little Deaths, tunes right into the era in which it’s set—that of 1965 New York. It’s a time full of female stereotypes, where law enforcement, juries, the press and the general public frequently pre-judge women on appearances, eager to denounce those who deviate from mom-and-apple-pie images of Norman Rockwell fantasies.
Ruth Malone is a single, working mother who discovers one morning that her two young children have gone missing from their beds. When their dead bodies surface days later and the case turns into one of murder, Ruth’s look and lifestyle immediately render her a prime suspect. She works long hours as a cocktail waitress; her makeup is heavy glam; she’s been known to sleep around and keeps a notebook of male “friends”; she’s not good at socializing with other women; and she dreams of finding that rich lover who’ll rescue her from her meager surroundings.
Local reporter Pete Wonicke gets assigned to the murder case, and he becomes increasingly obsessed with the case and attracted to what he believes is the real person beneath Ruth’s caricature of a surface. Lead detective Charlie Devlin is also obsessed, though in his eyes it’s “cherchez la femme”—for him, she is the obvious perpetrator to the exclusion of all other suspects. He’s a cop with a past, and he’ll do everything in his power to see that she’s found guilty of murder.
Ruth’s ex, Frank, was with his children shortly before they disappeared. He adds another voice to the narrative as the search for the guilty party heats up and readers sift through the stories and opinions from multiple sources.
As a thriller, Little Deaths succeeds as a fairly run-of-the-mill crime story with the usual collection of suspects, bad guys and sympathetic characters. However, as a psychological study of the subtle terror visited on a woman who is alone and essentially a victim herself, it’s superlative. The book effectively delivers a convulsive look at a woman trapped by circumstance and gender, skillfully tuned by the author to convey Ruth’s claustrophobic sense of fatalism.
There’s an unfinished feel to the end of the book, and some readers will consider the conclusion a cop-out. But in another way—and more effectively than a slam-bang finale—the final pages will embed readers in the real drama of Ruth’s descent—and perhaps her hope.