New novel explores how female criminals are judged by the media

Little Deaths by Emma Flint

‘When tragedy strikes, there’s a tendency to assume that someone is different. Special. That there’s something about them that makes them the kind of person bad things happen to. Because the alternative – that bad things can happen to anyone, at any time – is unthinkable.’

New York, 1965. One morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery. It’s every mother’s worst nightmare. But Ruth Malone is not like other mothers. Noting Ruth’s perfect make-up and provocative clothing, the empty bottles of alcohol and love letters that litter her apartment, the detectives leap to convenient conclusions. But is Ruth really capable of murder?

I was really intrigued by this book, having heard some great things about it. But, overall, the execution failed to live up to the promise of the idea.

The pace of the book was the main element that threw me off. We learn early on that Ruth is in prison, so throughout the investigation and trial there is no suspense about what is going to happen. I didn’t realise that this is partly a police procedural novel (a genre I am not particularly fond of) and that at least half the chapters are focused on a journalist named Pete who is investigating the story of the missing children, and in the process becomes obsessed with Ruth.

The writing is good, but lacks the flashes of brilliance that would have elevated this book to a truly great read. Some of the themes are really interesting and I found Ruth a sympathetic and well-written character. She cares deeply for her children but she becomes easily exasperated by them. Her life hasn’t turned out anything like she thought it would and her disappointment is, in the eyes of the media, enough to mark her out as a bad person – and possibly a murderer.

Even set in the 1960s, this book bears poignant relevance to our world today. Ruth might not be talked about and judged on social media, but in the claustrophobic working class environment where she lives, there’s always someone peeking through a net curtain and gossiping about the woman who comes home late.

If the focus had been entirely on Ruth, I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. Unfortunately, much of the story is focused on journalist Pete Wonicke. He is an entirely unmemorable character who quickly becomes exasperating with his unrealistic actions. I wanted to know more about Ruth, and I wanted Flint to delve further into the themes she just begins to pick at, especially the way female criminals are judged by the media.

I was also extremely disappointed by the ending. It seemed completely unconvincing and came out of the blue, and after that I was glad to put the book down.

This book definitely disappointed me, but fans of crime fiction will still find things to enjoy here. Just don’t expect it to blow your socks off.

Shocking story of crime and morality sure to satisfy your true crime cravings

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale

James Canham Read was refined, calculating, ruthless, with a compulsion to possess and control women even if it meant killing them. In his smooth composure, he resembled both the villains and the heroes in the penny dreadfuls that Robert liked to read.

Over 10 days during the summer of 1895, 13-year-old Robert Coombes and his 12-year-old brother Nattie pawned family valuables to fund trips to the theatre and the seaside. During this time nobody saw or heard from their mother, though the boys told neighbours she was visiting relatives. As the sun beat down on the Coombes’ house, an awful smell began to emanate from the building. When the police were finally called to investigate, what they found sent the press into a frenzy of horror and alarm.

This book tells a fascinating true story of one of the most shocking criminal trials to take place in Victorian London. It’s hard to say too much about the plot without giving away what happens, but suffice to say that this shocking story of violence and morality is sure to satisfy your true crime cravings.

Through the story of Robert and Nattie, Summerscale branches out to take a look at the wider context of Victorian life. We not only see the culture of the time – the penny dreadfuls and trashy novels that were said to inspire both murders and suicides – but also what life would have been like for those who were trapped by their circumstances of birth. We glimpse life in the claustrophobic alleys of east London, children’s experience of school, life working aboard a freight ship, the routines of a mental asylum, and fighting on the front line in World War II.

These combine to give us a fascinating overview of life in Victorian times, with one consequence being that we sometimes lose sight of the characters at the heart of the book. There were obviously large parts of the story where Summerscale couldn’t find much research about Robert and Nattie – at least not in their own words – and there are times when the detail becomes a little overwhelming (do we really need to know the history of the cricketers playing when the brothers went to Lord’s?).

Summerscale does a fantastic job of presenting all sides of the story so the reader is forced to make up their own mind about what they think really happened. The story takes us beyond the crime itself, through the trial and the aftermath and the ripple effect it had on all those involved. We learn what the newspapers were printing about the story, the theories medical experts put forward, and the shock and suspicion it aroused among the public. The period detail is fantastic and the real-life story of redemption Summerscale tells makes it all the more fascinating.

I would highly recommend this book to true crime fans. Some might find the lack of answers annoying, but I found it to be an entertaining and absorbing read.