Review: Little Deaths by Emma Flint

In the run-up to the winner of the 2017 Baileys Prize being announced on June 7th, Becky Lea reads her way through the longlist and offers her thoughts.

Ruth Malone is separated from her husband Frank, attempting to juggle looking after two children, a dead-end job, and a life that finds her at the centre of most local gossip. It’s July, 1965; Brooklyn is in the middle of a heatwave and the fragile hold that Ruth has on her life is about to loosen as her children vanish in the middle of the night. With her not-very-proper-for-1965 lifestyle, she finds herself as the chief suspect with only an eager young reporter, Pete Wonicke, on her side.

Emma Flint’s debut is, without doubt, an interesting book. There’s a real style to Flint’s prose and her descriptions of the story’s setting are continually evocative. The oppressive heat of the summer practically seeps through the pages and creates a clammy, disquieting atmosphere as the investigation into the Malone kids’ disappearance unfolds.

Taking her cues from real life criminal cases and weaving a story of her own, Flint isn’t content with just rolling out a traditional ‘whodunnit’. Instead, she uses the disappearance of the Malone children to examine the way in which gender and social stereotypes can warp a case and blind those investigating it to other possibilities. Flint doesn’t hold back in her depictions of misogyny, nor does she attempt to defend or sugarcoat.

My problem with this, however, is that it’s all a bit one-note. The vile, misogynist police detective is never anything but. Ruth is a figure of tragedy right from the very first chapter, painting a face on to present a mask to the world, rather than demonstrate her true pain. As such, there’s very little nuance in the portrayal of these characters and that stops Little Deaths achieving the kind of ambiguity needed in a did-she/didn’t-she story.

The only character who really approaches the kind of depth needed for the kind of examination that Flint wants to conduct is that of the reporter, Pete. Initially using Ruth’s story as his big break, he finds himself consumed by the idea of Ruth and discovering the truth around her. Pete’s arc throughout the book functions as an exploration of male entitlement and obsession, peeling back the layers of Pete’s intentions to tease out the real reason for his determination to stick by Ruth.

Little Deaths makes for a solid thriller and one very much founded in the melting pot of misogyny, male privilege, and the unconventional woman in the middle of it all. As a stylish mystery, it works particularly well, but feels like a wasted opportunity for a more incisive social critique.