About The Author
Emma Flint grew up in Newcastle and graduated from the University of St Andrews with an MA in English Language and Literature. She later completed a novel-writing course at the Faber Academy. Since childhood, she has read true-crime stories, developing an encyclopaedic knowledge of real-life murder cases. She lives in London.
Her debut novel, Little Deaths, now available in paperback, opens in the summer of 1965, in the streets of Queens, New York, when Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. Soon she finds she herself is under suspicion for an unspeakable crime. Based on a real murder case, this is a gripping novel about love, morality and obsession, exploring the capacity for good and evil within us all.
Exclusively for Foyles, Matt Blackstock talked to Emma about the real-life case that provided the inspiration for her novel, the deep roots of the domestic thriller, and how much - or little - tabloid reporting of crimes has changed over the last 50 years.
Author photo © Jonathan Ring
Questions & Answers
Your novel is inspired by a real murder case that took place in the mid-sixties. Can you tell us more about the history of this case?
Most of the key characters – Ruth and Frank Malone, Lou Gallagher, Johnny Salcito, Lena Gobek, and the children – are based on real people, but I’ve changed their names and embellished them with fictional details. Charlie Devlin is a composite of several of the officers involved in the initial investigation. Pete Wonicke, Friedmann, Horowitz, Gina and Bette are my own inventions.
The essential facts of the story remain the same: the real Ruth woke up one morning in the summer of 1965 to find her two young children missing from their apartment in Queens. Her four year-old daughter was found dead that afternoon; the body of her five year-old son was discovered a week later.
Most of the people involved in the case are now dead: Lou Gallagher died in 1998, Johnny Salcito in 2006 and Lena Gobek in 2009. Frank Malone remarried and relocated to Florida where he died in 2012, while the prosecutor I call Hirsch was still practising law in Queens in 2015.
Have you always had an interest in true crime?
Yes: the first ‘true crime’ book I read – at the age of twelve – was Forty Years of Murder, by Keith Simpson, first Professor of Forensic Medicine at London University. I was fascinated, and went on to read about Bernard Spilsbury and Francis Camps. At the age of 14 I decided I wanted to be a pathologist myself – until I discovered that I’d need three science A-levels to get onto a forensic science course, and abandoned that idea. It was then that I started reading true crime in earnest – I got through a lot of books by Ann Rule, John Dunning and Jonathan Goodman as a teenager. By 16 I was subscribing regularly to Murder Casebook, a series of weekly publications by Marshall Cavendish which ran from 1991 to 1994. Issue 11 contained the story of a mother in New York who was suspected of killing her two children – and this account became the genesis of Little Deaths.
This book is set in New York, as a British writer what made you decide to set your story here? Do you think it would have the same resonance if the story was set in London for example?
I didn’t make a conscious decision to write a novel set in America – at the beginning it was all about the character who became Ruth and the story of what happened to her and her children, and it was by chance that the story took place in Queens. Then a couple of years into writing Little Deaths, I wondered what it would be like to change the location to a suburb of a British city, and I spent a few weeks experimenting with the setting. It was only when I tried to change it and the change didn’t work that I realised how integral the setting is to the novel. Half of the story is narrated by Pete Wonicke, who is an outsider in Queens – and I think part of the reason that I was able to empathise with him is that of course I was an outsider too when I was writing about that neighbourhood.
Having said that, I did use memories of my own childhood when writing Little Deaths – I grew up in a quiet and sometimes claustrophobic suburb, and I think anyone who grew up in that environment will understand the closeness of this kind of neighbourhood, and how anyone different stands out.
The way your lead character Ruth is described often focuses on her looks or how she’s dressed. Was this deliberate, and was it something you noticed when researching the case that inspired you?
When I read contemporary accounts of the case that inspired Little Deaths, they largely focused on the looks of the woman who became Ruth, and on how she was dressed. This was the filter that her story was told through, and this was the way that it reached the public, from whom the juries were selected. The more I read, the more I thought about how women are still often judged on how they look – the clothes they choose, whether or not they wear make up – it still feels relevant when you look at how women like Kate McCann and Amanda Knox were represented in the press.
There has been a big resurgence of female crime writers in the last few years, why do you think that is? How do you feel being part of this rise in popularity?
There have always been female crime writers with long and successful careers: Agatha Christie, PD James, Ruth Rendell, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham… I think what we’ve seen recently is a rise in domestic psychological thrillers, which are mostly written by women.
Even the ‘domestic thriller’ has deep roots – you could argue that Jane Eyre, Rebecca and The Wide Sargasso Sea are thrillers in domestic settings. But I think the explosion in domestic thrillers or domestic noir that we’ve seen in recent years is probably down to two things: firstly domestic settings and events are now seen as ‘valid’ subjects for novels, and secondly, I think women are becoming more open about the fears and threats they experience. We now have spaces where we can talk about how it feels to walk down the street and be catcalled, or how it feels to be stalked, or how it feels to be afraid to end a relationship. We’re all more aware of the existence of domestic abuse, and most people know that two women are murdered every week by a current or former partner (ironically, awareness is increasing at the same time that refuges are closing down and domestic violence charities are losing funding). Of course men are abused and killed by women as well but, specifically in relation to female crime writers, more than 80% of crime novels are bought by women, so it makes complete sense that a lot of crime novels focus on the deepest fears of women – being hurt or killed by someone close to them.
As for how it feels to be part of this…come back and ask me in a year! I never intended to write a crime novel. I wrote Little Deaths about characters and events I was interested in, and I was actually surprised when I realised it would be marketed and sold as a crime novel. I love crime fiction, but I’m still surprised to be grouped with other crime writers because Little Deaths isn’t a whodunit or a police procedural. It’s a book about crime, because crime is what interests me.
I was interested in the role the American media played in your book, especially how you used it to shine a light on the way the press would speak about women and the corruption of the police. Do you think much has changed since this time?
I’d like to say that there would be an outcry if women – even murder suspects – were described this way today, but the language and tone of the news articles in Little Deaths were inspired by tabloid descriptions of women in the public eye, including Kate McCann and Amanda Knox.
Having said that - generally speaking, I think that both media channels and audiences have become more sophisticated about how things are presented. We’re all more conscious that news articles – whether in print or online – inevitably have a bias, and we all understand now that the media chooses to present stories and individuals in a certain light. Being cynical, I assume that this increased awareness among audiences is probably driving the way that reporting has changed in recent years – given the proliferation of news channels and sites, we can switch over very easily or leave negative comments on social media if we don’t like the narrative we’re presented with.
When writing the book how did you juggle the facts of the real case with creating your own story? Was it hard finding a line between fiction and non-fiction?
I think writing about a real crime is similar to any other historical fiction: it’s my job as a novelist to take the basic facts and breathe life into them so that the reader can experience them in a new way. The key is to make the characters real, and the past immediate and familiar, by writing about situations and experiences that the reader can relate to. We all know what it is to experience sadness or loneliness or fear: as a writer you need to make what your characters are going through vivid enough that readers feel it too.
Of course I had to select which facts to include and which ones to leave out, and I found it interesting that there were some things that happened in the course of the real investigation which my editors felt weren’t believable enough, and which I then left out and had to work around!