Little Deaths by Emma Flint (2017)

Emma Flint’s debut novel Little Deaths is among the novels on the Baileys Prize Long List 2017. The Baileys list is one of only a few prize lists I’m interested in. Usually I read three to four of the novels on the list. I hadn’t heard of Emma Flint’s book before seeing the list and it immediately caught my attention.

Set in 1965, in New York, it tells the story of Ruth Malone whose two children, Cindy and Frankie, disappear and are found dead a few days later. The book begins with Ruth’s voice. She’s in prison, thinking back. This is the only part written in present tense, from then on the book stays in past tense and is told by Ruth and Peter Wonicke, a journalist.

We know from the beginning that Ruth is found guilty of the murder of her children but we will only find out at the end how that happend and whether she did it. In a way it’s not even that important because this book isn’t as much about whether Ruth is guilty or not as it is about the vilification of women.

Ruth Malone is glamorous. She loves to dress up, uses make-up, is separated from her husband, has affairs and lovers. She dresses provocatively, loves sex, and drinks too much. Not the way the other women in the neighbourhood behave. Definitely not the way the policemen’s wives behave. Everybody seems to have an idea of how a woman and especially a wife and mother has to be and that definitely hasn’t anything to do with the way Ruth conducts herself.

What follows is less an inquiry than a witch hunt. A witch hunt that leads to a trial. People – the neighbours, the police, the press – want Ruth to be found guilty. They want her punished for her life style and would do anything to break her and see her in prison.

I guess it’s easy to understand that this was an upsetting book. Two children are dead but what people really seem to be interested in is seeing their mother behind bars, just because she’s different. It made me think of the last book I reviewed here, Asking For It. While the two books are very different, they have one thing in common – women are punished for their behaviour.

I think it was a good idea to tell large parts of the story from the point of view of a journalist. Like everyone else, Wonicke wants Ruth to be guilty at first because that would make a great story. He writes a few short pieces about her and they all make her look suspicious. Why would a mother whose children have disappeared bother to dress up and put on make up? Why would she buy a new dress after finding out her kids were murdered? And since sex sells, Wonicke emphasises that she’s  very attractive. Ultimately though, Wonicke is a good guy and after a while he realizes that he doesn’t help finding the culprit. On the contrary, he helps clouding people’s judgement and enforces their belief in Ruth’s guilt.

By the time he realises what he’s done, it’s already too late. Not because of his articles but because the police and the neighbours have seen to many things they consider suspicious and because Ruth is withdrawn and haughty. People expect her to be broken, to stay in, but she goes out, drinks, and has sex like before.

Wonicke falls for her and swears he will help her find the perpetrator. Thanks to his sympathetic look, the reader interprets Ruth differently.

He felt like he was seeing her in a different light today. However this played out—whether Devlin made an arrest or not, whether they got a conviction or not—how could this ever end for her? Surely she’d never be the same woman again. She’d never be able to sit in the sun for the sheer pleasure of it, or walk into a store and pick out a dress just because it was pretty. No one would ever be able to look at her and not remember.

Ruth’s story is inspired by a true crime – the Alice Crimmins case. I didn’t know that when I bought the book. I found out when I started reading because Emma Flint mentions in the bio section that she’s always loved true crime. I then skimmed the acknowledgement section where she mentions which case inspired her. I’m not so keen on books inspired by true crimes because I can’t stop wondering how much is really true.

While it’s not a depressing book, it’s extremely upsetting. To think that something like this happened. For some reasons it made me think of the poet Anne Sexton. Ruth stands for all of those women, like Anne Sexton, who didn’t have a lot of choices. Who got married and had kids and felt trapped. It’s never said but Ruth’s behaviour lets us assume that there’s at least a masked depression underneath it all.

I liked this book a lot. I wish I hadn’t read it so quickly because it has many amazing passages. The writing is so strong. It’s definitely more literary than crime. The focus is on the way Ruth is hunted, not so much on whether or not she did it. Highly recommended.

Anthony Horowitz: Moriarty (2014)

Moriarty

I didn’t expect that I would enjoy Moriarty so much but I did. This is especially surprising because, initially, I had no intention of reading it. I don’t usually pick up Sherlock Homes sequels, but since I’m planning on visiting the Swiss Sherlock Homes Museum and the Reichenbach Falls soon, I was suddenly tempted. I don’t regret it. Of course, the weather played a role as well. After weeks of temperatures over 100°/39°, we suddenly had cool and rainy autumnal weather.

The book starts at the Reichenbach Falls, in Switzerland. Those who are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories, know that’s where Holmes and his adversary Moriarty meet and fall to their deaths. Or, to be more precise, we are led to believe they fell to their deaths. It’s here, at the Reichenbach Falls, where Inspector Athelney Jones from Scotland Yard and Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase meet. The two men hit it off instantly and decide to join forces and hunt for a criminal, who is even more evil than Moriarty—Clarence Devereux, a ruthless American criminal who’s been followed by his violent entourage. A coded message in the pockets of the dead man they believe to be Moriarty, tells the two men where to go next. It looks as if Devereux and Moriarty were meant to meet in London.

Jones and Chase leave Switzerland and travel back to London where they embark on a hunt for the elusive criminal and follow his trail of violence and murder.

This is a very tightly plotted, dramatic and atmospheric story that manages to capture the Victorian London we know so well from the Sherlock Holmes story. I was afraid at first, that the book might be a bit artificial but while it shares elements with the Sherlock Holmes stories, it felt original. It also felt much more modern. I can’t think of any Sherlock Homes story in which the crimes depicted were as gruesome as in this novel. It’s an entertaining, enjoyable page-turner that will appeal to more than just Sherlock Holmes fans. My only reservation – admittedly it’s not a small one – the twist towards the end. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about, if not—be prepared. You might be disappointed. I was annoyed at first, but a few days after having finished the book, the memory of the great atmosphere and the tight plot remains, while the twist is just a faint aftertaste. In a way, looking back, it even makes sense. Nonetheless, I felt I needed to warn people. There were reviewers on amazon who were so annoyed by the twist that it made them hate the book.

At the end of the book, as a freebie, so to speak, there’s one of Horowitz’ Sherlock Holmes stories “The Three Monarchs”, which I found quite enjoyable too.

In spite of the twist – I can really recommend this crime novel. It’s been written in the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories but adapted to our more modern tastes. An ideal book for a rainy afternoon.