It’s 1965 in a tight-knit working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, and Ruth Malone–a single mother who works long hours as a cocktail waitress–wakes to discover her two small children, Frankie Jr. and Cindy, have gone missing. Later that day, Cindy’s body is found in a derelict lot a half mile from her home, strangled. Ten days later, Frankie Jr.’s decomposing body is found. Immediately, all fingers point to Ruth.
Little Deaths was one of the random library picks which have become a rare occurrence since I started blogging. The cover caught my eye and the 1960s setting for a strange murder mystery had me itching to know more. Ruth’s story hooked me in, but it wasn’t until I finished and learned it was based on a real case that it really started to play on my mind.
The book centres on the murder of two small children, seemingly snatched from their bedroom in the middle of the night. The facts of the real case (like dates and court proceedings) are woven with the fictionalised names and an imagining of how the crime may have played out. What’s not fiction is the reaction of the public, the condemnation of a single mother because of her promiscuity and ‘immoral’ ways. In reality, as in Little Deaths, Alice Crimmins was lambasted in the press and labelled the “sexpot” on trial. The central question of this case, in reality and in fiction, wasn’t ‘who murdered these children?’, but ‘how could a mother live like this?’.
Focused on these larger questions surrounding the case and Ruth’s conduct, Little Deaths was literary more than thriller. Partly to blame for this condemnation of Ruth is her perceived lack of reaction to the events unfolding. We want to see grief etched across a mother’s face, if there’s stoic silence the public presumes guilt. Ruth was a frustrating and unlikeable character, but I couldn’t help feeling sad because this aloofness shouldn’t have condemned her. But Ruth is also surprisingly absent from the story. Instead there is a focus on the cops who are tailing her and investigating the case and newspaper reporter Pete, who becomes increasingly obsessed with the case. While I found this intriguing at first, I just couldn’t fathom his growing fascination with Ruth and by the end it felt utterly bizaare.
This is not a murder mystery, but it is an interesting exploration of what happens after and raises some fascinating questions about what was, and in a more unconscious sense still is, expected of women. I found the setting and the writing quite evocative and it was certainly a compelling story. While I appreciate Flint’s imagined conclusion for Little Deaths, I can’t help but wonder now if there’s someone who got away with murder in reality because a mother was on trial for her morals.