Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Little Deaths – Emma Flint

Crime Fiction
5*s

Little Deaths is inspired by the true story of Alice Crimmins who was tried for the murder of her two young children in Queens, New York in 1965, and oh my, what a compelling story this is!

We are introduced to the mother, now Ruth Malone, who lives in an apartment in Queens whose two children Frankie and Cindy went missing from their bedroom. With little Cindy found strangled in a nearby parking lot a day later, Frankie remained missing for a further ten days, and then he too was found murdered. Despite the horrible crime as the book unfolds we see that Ruth was tried, not as much on hard evidence but because the former cocktail waitress did not behave as the public expects a bereaved mother to act.

I was instantly drawn into the tale, the world that Ruth lived in is one that is relatively easy to sympathise with. Her life hadn’t turned out as she expected, her dreams stunted by the birth of her two children and then she separated from her husband Frank. At the time the children went missing the two were locked in a custody battle with Ruth determined not to relinquish her children but at the same time nor was she going to live like a nun.  Contrary to the working class values that was Queens at that time, her neighbours disapproved of her association with a number of other men,added to which she cared about her appearance, drank and smoked. The hard truth is that Ruth wanted more from her life but did that mean she was the one who killed the children?  The countless crimes against Ruth mount throughout the book as the police, certain of her guilt, have her under almost constant surveillance so when she buys a new dress soon after Cindy’s body was found, her guilt was almost confirmed.

Emma Flint has provided us with one of the most complex of female characters and each incident can be viewed from differing angles and the conclusions made will depend on which angle you consider to be most realistic. This creation really takes the book way beyond a simple rehash of the crime itself. I felt I knew Ruth, I could both identify with some of her thoughts whilst at other times wonder why she made life quite so hard for herself, after all she was far from stupid – perhaps that was her downfall?

In the mix of characters we have Ruth’s mother, her ex Frank, a couple of male friends, the police and the crime reporter determined to make a name for himself, Pete Wonicke, whose obsession with the case added a whole other layer of interest to the story. On the sidelines are the former babysitter and other neighbours all who are pertinent, maybe not to the main mystery but in building the picture of the time and place. The atmosphere of this book was really spot on for both and part of what I loved so much was the feeling of being transported to a different world. The third person narrative was entirely appropriate for the book which is an exploration of values of the time as much as a murder mystery.

I know it is a cliché but once I started this book I simply couldn’t put it down, and as a result of how wrapped up in Ruth’s story I became, have spent my time since with an obsession with Alice Crimmins. From my research I can confirm that the author has clearly done hers although I’m sure the book had far more impact because I read it before learning about the case that inspired it.

I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of this book from the publishers Picador and this review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 12 January 2017
Publisher: Picador
No of Pages:  320
Genre: Crime Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction
5*s

Well this was a devastating read!!

Telling the tale, as it does of Agnes Magnúsdóttir:

‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’

There were no surprises as to the ending, but the further I read through, right up until the last page I was willing history to be changed, for Agnes to pardoned and her life to be saved. Why was I rooting so hard for a murderess? Well Hannah Kent has in her words to:

‘This novel has been written to supply a more ambiguous portrayal of this woman’

She does this by recounting the run-up to the murders, partly in the first person narrative that Agnes gives to her chosen priest, Assistant Reverand Tóti Jónsson who is to prepare her spiritually for her death and later to Magrét Jónsson whose farm she was sent to while awaiting her execution. We also have an omnipresent third person narrator who lends a wider view of the crime committed, and of Agnes herself. From this we get an alternative view of how and why Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson came to be slayed with a knife and a hammer one night. It would take the hardest of hearts not to feel some sympathy for Agnes, not because the author tells us so, oh no, far cleverer than that Hannah Kent paints a captivating picture of the coldness, darkness and sheer bleakness of life in nineteenth century Iceland alongside the more common tale of a woman deceived by her lover. For Natan and Agnes were lovers; it was for Natan she’d left the comparatively well-populated life in the valley farms as a workmaid to follow him to more or less entire seclusion in Illugastadir.

‘All my life people have thought I was too clever. Too clever by half, they’d say. And you know what Reverend? That’s exactly why they don’t pity me. Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’

Hannah Kent has used the Icelandic sagas as a base to weave the story around, many of the characters we meet prefer these sagas to the Christian teaching of the church. Through this we have the subtle yet powerful lyrical narrative that had me drawn into Agnes’s tale.

‘My tongue feels so tired; it slumps in my mouth like a dead bird, all damp feathers, in between the stones of my teeth.’

With its references to the superstitions of the day frequently referencing the ravens I came to dread their appearance fearing what horrors they may be about to foretell despite being in a nice warm cosy home not a home where the boards hiding the dung used to build the walls had been sold to enable the family of Jón Jónsson to eat.  The feelings of the household to the newly billeted prisoner are also deftly drawn with a light touch. It is a supposed honour which comes with compensation but one that can’t be refused despite the concerns of both Jón and Magrét about the spiritual and moral welfare of both their daughter.

I can’t praise the author for the haunting simplicity of the writing in this book, although as the story worked its way towards its tragic ending, I was heartbroken.

‘They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men and now they must steal mine.’

If you, like me, didn’t get around to reading this when it was first published, I urge you to, this book which does not flinch from the realities of Agnes’s life and death should not be missed.