As a kid growing up in Queens in the mid-1960s, there were three things I could always count on seeing in my Catholic school classroom: the American flag (left side), a crucifix (center) and a statue of the Virgin Mary (beneath the flag). Each of these fixtures served as amulets, protecting us against their profane counterparts: The flag stood against communism, the crucifix against Satan and, by the start of the school year in 1965, the Virgin Mary against Alice Crimmins. Crimmins was an anti-maternal figure, as reviled for her alleged crimes as Lee Harvey Oswald was for assassinating John F. Kennedy.
The basic details of the case are as follows: Crimmins was an attractive, redheaded 26-year-old mother living with her two children in an apartment in Kew Gardens, Queens. She was Irish Catholic but clearly lapsed.
Separated from her husband, Crimmins liked to drink and socialize, bringing boyfriends home to the apartment she shared with 5-year-old Eddie and 4-year-old Alice Marie, or “Missy.” On the night of July 14, 1965, Crimmins left her sleeping children in the apartment and took her pregnant dog for a walk. According to her testimony, Crimmins said that when she awoke the next morning, her children had vanished from the bedroom they shared. Police discovered Missy’s body that same day: She had been strangled. Eddie’s badly decomposed corpse was discovered five days later.
Because of her unapologetic penchant for men, martinis and Maybelline, Crimmins did not win the sympathy of New York police detectives or the public. In fact, she was quickly tagged as the prime suspect. After two years of surveillance that included secretly taping her sexual encounters, detectives arrested Crimmins and charged her with the murders. The case came to trial in 1968 and Crimmins was found guilty and imprisoned. But that was just the beginning of what would turn out to be a dizzying legal seesaw. The verdict was appealed and Crimmins was released, charged again and convicted in 1971. That second verdict was overturned in 1973; then it was reinstated and Crimmins was imprisoned again in 1975. She was paroled in 1977. Now 77, Crimmins is out there somewhere; according to rumor, she may even be living in Queens.
The irresolution that haunts the Crimmins case has made it reliable fodder for TV movies and books, most famously the 1975 novel that launched Mary Higgins Clark’s career, “Where Are the Children?” Now, Emma Flint revisits the case in her debut novel “Little Deaths.”
Even though Flint is British, she nails with authority the voices, commonplace wisdom and dusty claustrophobia of the borough. Just as important, Flint captures the mundane yet mythic horror of the case that has memorialized it in the annals of New York City crime.
As befits a murder mystery whose greatest distinguishing aspect is uncertainty, the Crimmins case unfolds through several narrators, among them Crimmins herself (here called “Ruth Malone”); her estranged husband; several detectives (some dedicated, some crooked, some both); and Pete Wonicke, an ambitious young newspaper reporter who finds himself resisting his editor’s insistence that he paint Malone as the outer borough version of the Whore of Babylon. Flint’s Malone is something of a proto-feminist who finds herself paying the price for behaving as though the sexual revolution has arrived. As a woman savvy enough to know that her power derives from her looks, Malone tries to please men, even in the ghastliest of circumstances. Here she is moments after her children have been reported missing:
“She went into the bedroom and changed her clothes. Put on a clean blouse that flattered her figure. She knew that there would be men, strangers, looking at her, asking questions. Their eyes all over her like hands. She had to be ready for them. She had to look right.”
Flint is scrupulous about centering this moody thriller in the facts, yet giving them a deeper psychological spin. (The real-life Crimmins, for instance, alienated the police detectives who first showed up at her apartment with her fresh makeup and tight clothes. In Flint’s telling, that curious behavior is a product of Crimmins’s double consciousness: her need to see herself reflected approvingly in others’ eyes.) In a way that feels measured rather than salacious, Flint also manages to keep aloft the crucial question of “Who murdered the children?” until the very last pages. As a novel inspired by tragic real-life events, “Little Deaths” is atmospheric and plausible. It’s too bad the actual Crimmins case seems to resist such closure.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Emma Flint
Hachette. 311 pp. $26