“The actual murder was much gorier than the one I describe in my book,” says Emma Flint. “He chopped her into pieces. Cut her head off. He boiled bits of her hands and feet. Ground her up. They found some of her organs in a biscuit tin.”
Flint is describing the real, 1924 murder on which she has based her second novel, Other Women. The follow-up to 2016’s gripping Little Deaths was inspired by the story of how handsome, middle-class Patrick Mahon first seduced and then murdered 38-year-old typist Emily Kaye at a holiday cottage near Eastbourne.
“Every novel begins with a question,” says Flint. “In this case, the question was: why would an intelligent, financially independent woman like that risk everything for a married man, a father? Because 100 years ago there were no safety nets for a woman like that. Her career, her status, her friendships, her survival were all on the line. She had moved from the North down to London – like me! That was brave and unusual for a woman in the 1920s. And yet the newspaper reports all focused on Mahon: how handsome and sociable he was, how he was a father. They only described her as ‘a spinster, typist, older woman’. She was reduced to a footnote and that made me furious. I wanted to give her back a voice.”
Born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne, Flint tells me she’s always been fascinated by “what drives people to act on the impulses most of us suppress.” The daughter of a surveyor and a primary school teacher, she began devouring Agatha Christie novels at an early age. “Then, when I was twelve, we went on a family holiday to America. At Heathrow I had a panic when I realised I’d put all my books in my suitcase and would have nothing to read on the long flight. So my dad gave me a £10 note to go to Smiths. I got an Agatha Christie and then noticed a book with a skull on the cover. It was Forty Years of Murder: the memoir of the Home Office pathologist, Keith Simpson.” She grins. Simpson was a pioneering force in forensic pathology, his post-mortems included victims of the 1949 Acid Bath Murders committed by John George Haigh and the murder of gangster George Cornell, shot dead by Ronnie Kray in 1966.
“By the time we arrived in America,” says Flint, “I’d decided I wanted to be a pathologist. I thought: this is a really pure form of detection. You’re working backwards from a body with all the physical evidence. Like Sherlock Holmes. I mean, if he were alive now he’d be a pathologist.” Although Flint ultimately found herself more drawn to writing than science, she began subscribing to True Crime magazines in her teens.
“True crime is very popular with teenage girls, isn’t it,” she mulls. “I think it’s connected to survival. If you’re lucky, then your teenage years are when you’ll start to get unwanted male attention. If you’re unlucky it will be before then. But girls are looking – in a safe way – at the worst that can happen, at the worst things a man can be thinking when he looks at you. It allows you to ask: how can I avoid that?”
Flint read English at St Andrews University “where, even before William and Kate arrived, I was flabbergasted to realise that some of the women were there just to meet the right men and get married. I was always raised to think of a career. My dad pulled his weight at home, my mum studied for a law degree on maternity leave.” While there, she was “really inspired by Hemingway and read everything he wrote, even though it wasn’t on my course. I loved his energy, his momentum and his metaphors. As a man he was obviously very problematic. But as a writer? He changed everything for me.”
Although Flint dreamed of writing fiction, she spent twenty years as a technical writer (“instruction manuals for software and hardware engineers”) and now writes government websites. “I wonder how my life would have gone if I’d submitted things to an agent as a younger woman. But I do also think that spending two decades learning to write good, clear sentences really helped.”
In her spare time Flint continued reading True Crime. She reflects today on how she was changed by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966): about the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. “There was a real tenderness in the way Capote wrote about those two killers,” she says. “He was able to humanise people who’d committed such a horrific crime – for a reason I couldn’t empathise with – yet he made me care about them. That had a huge impact on me.”
It took Flint six years to write her gripping debut, Little Deaths. “All I had ever wanted to do was write a novel,” she says. “When I held the first copy, aged 42, I cried.” The critically-acclaimed Little Deaths was based on the real case of Alice Crimmins, who was accused of murdering her four- and five-year-old children in New York in 1965. Flint was first drawn to photographs of the glamorous young Crimmins, whose guilt was assumed by misogynists who thought that a young single mother who enjoyed alcohol and sex would be capable of anything.
In the case of Patrick Mahon, it was just the opposite. “People looked at his photographs and tried to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even me. When I first saw him, in my twenties, I felt I would have thought he was a nice man. I was scared to realise, yeah, I probably would have trusted him too,” she shudders. “Years later I watched the Netflix documentary about Ted Bundy – who killed attractive women in their late teens and twenties with long dark hair. And I was horrified to see that at his trial the courtroom was filled with women fitting the same profile, all making eyes at him, flirting with him, writing him notes. I thought: why do some women have that fascination with darkness? I’ve based the women who come to my character’s trial on that.”
“All I had ever wanted to do was write a novel. When I held the first copy, aged 42, I cried”
Other Women – which I gulped down overnight – is told from two perspectives: Kate (the wife) and Bea (the lover). Both women have rich interior lives. In Bea’s case, readers will be swept up in her yearning for a love she’d lost hope of finding after so many men of her generation had been lost in the Great War. We watch her renounce her spinsterly lavender hand cream for new silk underwear and baths full of rose petals… and exchange her steady independence for raging jealousy as she imagines the home life of her lover with his wife and daughter. Flint says she “wanted to look at a situation in which all three main characters have a motive to kill each other. The wife, the husband, the lover. Any of them could have killed either of the other two.”
Flint doesn’t give the murderer a voice because she’s not interested in his voice. “When somebody does something we can’t comprehend,” she says, “I think we want to make them more complicated, more interesting than they are.”
Although Flint’s fictional killer – Tom – is different in some ways from Mahon, it’s worth noting that the real man appears to have been an arrogant and unimaginative killer. “His wife found a left luggage ticket in his pocket,” says Flint. “She thought it was evidence he was going to leave her. So she asked a friend to go and check on the case because she couldn’t bear to do it herself.” He opened it, found the bloodstained clothes and told the police, who put a watch on the left luggage office. “Pat Mahon was arrested walking though Waterloo train station with a bag of bloodstained underwear and a massive, bloodstained knife,” Flint shrugs. “I know it sounds ridiculous. But that’s really what happened. It doesn’t sound plausible, does it? Honestly, an editor wouldn’t let you make it up!”
“Other Women” by Emma Flint (368pp, Pan Macmillan, £16.99, hb) is out now
Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail