Emma Flint shares how the real-life case of Alice Crimmins served as the inspiration for her Women's Prize longlisted debut novel, Little Deaths. 

I first read about the Crimmins case when I was sixteen, and the details stayed with me for twenty years, until I began to write the book that would become Little Deaths.

In the summer of 1965, Alice Crimmins was a single mother living in an ordinary working-class suburb of Queens, New York. She had recently separated from her husband and was trying to juggle a job as a cocktail waitress with caring for her two young children.

One hot July morning, Alice woke up to find four-year-old Missy and five-year-old Eddie missing from their locked bedroom. Both children were later found dead.

Those are the bare facts of the case that intrigued me for two decades. I was haunted by the few photographs that exist of the smiling round-cheeked children, and by photographs of their mother taken during the police investigation. In each one she is dressed in tight clothes that show off her slim figure, with striking red-gold hair and thick make-up. She is at the centre of every photograph: tiny, doll-like, surrounded by bulky men in suits and cops in uniform, almost as though the photographer has posed the group to make her the focus. And yet, despite her vivid presence, she is strangely absent from each picture. Eyes cast down, lips pressed tight together, she refuses to look into the camera, refuses to engage with the audience.

I was fascinated by this woman and why she became the chief suspect in the murders of her children, before the police even had confirmation they were dead. Little Deaths was borne out of this fascination.

Alice Crimmins was an easy woman for a stolid and unimaginative cop to dislike. She was a wife, brought up a Catholic and married in a Catholic church – yet she was separated from her husband and had multiple lovers.

She was a mother who claimed to be devoted to her children, yet she worked long shifts in a seedy bar instead of staying home to take care of them, and locked them in their bedroom for hours while she slept late.

She was bereaved and supposedly grieving, yet she continued to dress provocatively and to apply her heavy mask of make-up in the days following the discovery of her children’s bodies.

And her story just didn’t stack up. She told the police she’d fed the children veal and tinned green beans for their last meal, but the autopsy on her daughter’s body found pasta in her stomach. Over the years that passed between first reading about the case and writing Little Deaths, I kept returning to this discrepancy. Of all the lies Alice could have told to cover up what happened, why would she lie about that detail – one that didn’t give her an alibi, one that was so easily disproved?

Crime novels are built on lies like this. I became obsessed with Alice Crimmins because of what initially seemed like such a pointless, stupid lie – and as I began to write, I became obsessed with the lies that were told about Alice herself. Everyone, the press, the police and the public had their own view of her: she was a grieving mother, a bitch, a whore, a victim, a murderer. I wanted to know why she provoked such strong opinions, and to create a character that would allow me to explore my own ideas of who she was.

In Ruth Malone, I created a character who was neither straightforward nor easy to like, but who was real and rounded, and who readers could identify with because she wasn’t perfect. And now that Little Deaths is out in the world, I hope that readers will make up their minds about her – about the contradictory opinions about her voiced by the other characters, and about her guilt or innocence.