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Anna Trafford gets to grips with debut novelist Emma Flint’s new book with a glass of wine at Spike Island’s Novel Writers evening.

In the blustery wake of Storm Doris’ rampage, Spike Island welcome those brave enough to venture out to listen to debut novelist, Emma Flint, talk about her recently published book, Little Deaths. A dozen or so literature enthusiasts, chilled glasses of Pinot Grigio in hand, settle in to the suitably low-lit room to become enveloped in the shady world of murder mystery that has consumed Flint’s life for the past six years.

Little Deaths is a work of fiction inspired by the chilling real life 1965 case of Alice Crimmins, a suburban New York working mother whose young children went missing from their apartment one night in July. Their bodies were found in separate locations a few days later.

‘the bitch did it’

When her extra-marital affairs and loose moral behaviour came to light, Crimmins instantly captured the attention of the media. She became a tabloid celebrity in the same vein as Amanda Knox and Kate McCann. Her public perception suffered at the hands of a readership inclined to jump to unfavourable conclusions about her made up appearance and revealing clothes.

The mistrust that spurred a policeman in the Alice Crimmins case to declare, ‘the bitch did it’, before there was sufficient grounds for her arrest, provokes discussion extending far beyond the closing pages of the novel.

Of the relation between the Alice Crimmins case and the fictional Ruth Malone case Flint concluded, ‘I guess I used the real story as a skeleton and fleshed it out with my imagination’. Flint emphasised her deep concern with the ethics of fictionalising such a case. One thing clear from her writing is that the uncertainty regarding the identity of the killer is presided over by a drive to bring to light the aching injustice of Malone’s presumed guilt.

Flint wanted [Ruth] to be someone with whom readers found it difficult to sympathise.

Flint read aloud the powerful opening pages of the novel, which follow Ruth’s intimate morning routine. We watch as she ‘smear[s] on foundation’ and scrubs away ‘ripe yellow odour’. The discomfort evoked by the painful intimacy of her shame-ridden beauty regime is formative to our perception of Ruth as a deeply conflicting character.

the novel’s true strength lies … in its raw portrayal of loneliness, guilt and biting prejudice.

Living in the era pre-feminism, Ruth is a woman who struggles to reconcile her desire for independence and her role as a mother. Flint disclosed that this was essential to her intentions in Ruth’s characterisation: Flint wanted her to be someone with whom readers found it difficult to sympathise.

Whether or not Ruth Malone follows the path of the real-life Alice Crimmins is for the reader to find out. However, the novel’s true strength lies not so much in its ‘whodunnit’ aspect, but in its raw portrayal of loneliness, guilt and biting prejudice.

Finished books are in and it’s love at first sight! #littledeaths #emmaflint #holidayreading

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The extent to which an author’s intentions should be allowed to shape your understanding of a text is a question that plagues students of literature.

However, whether or not you choose to take Flint’s vision into account, gaining an insight into her creative process was a profoundly rewarding experience. To see the fruit of six years’ hard labour and an avid interest was inspiring.

Spike Island’s Novel Writers is a monthly event, held in collaboration with Bristol Festival of Ideas. Next month, David Breenan’s This is Memorial Device will be discussed.

Related Content: Novel Writers Adam Biles Feeding Time


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