Quiet Dell

By Jayne Anne Phillips

(Scribner, $28, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

If Jayne Anne Phillips were to line up her many literary awards on the mantelpiece….well, she’d need another fireplace or two. Her books include “Lark and Termite,” “ Motherkind,” “Shelter” and “Machine Dreams” and the story collections “Fast Lanes” and “Black Tickets.” Phillips has been a finalist for a National Book Award and National Book Critic’s Circle Award and has been awarded many prestigious fellowships, including a Guggenheim, a Bunting, two from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Sue Kaufman Prize, and an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She is Distinguished Professor of English and directs the MFA Program at Rutgers-Newark, the State University of New Jersey, where she established The Writers At Newark Reading Series.

What is this book about?

Add this book to the pile of good novels with real-life underpinnings. It is based on multiple murders carried out by a con man whose victims were widows.

Set in Chicago in 1931, the novel tells what happens when Harry Powers, by all appearances an elegant and caring man, sends letters to a recently widowed mother of three children, promising to become a loving husband and father to the grieving Eicher family. Too good to be true? Evidently, because soon the poor mother and her kids are dead, killed in West Virginia in a town called Quiet Dell.

Enter Emily, a female reporter, one of very few women in that line of work in Chicago, who becomes obsessed with the heartbreaking story and sets out, with the help of a banker who might have saved the wife, and a photographer who is also fascinated by the case, to find out what happened, and how, and why. The despicable Harry Powers, it seems, has met his match.

Why you’ll like it:

Intrepid female reporters are not unusual in today’s journalism world, but they were in the 1930s, when the real-life murders chronicled here took place. So it’s refreshing to encounter a female character so passionate about the people in her story and one so dedicated to justice as well. Add to the compelling characters and chilling plot the beautiful prose for which Jayne Anne Phillips has been acclaimed, and you have a book not easily set down nor forgotten.

What others are saying:

Says Publishers Weekly:  “At the core of this sprawling new novel from the author of Lark and Termite is a series of real-life murders committed in 1931. A man calling himself Cornelius O. Pierson woos Asta Eicher, mother of three and recently widowed, in polished letters promising fidelity and financial security. After Asta disappears with Pierson, aka Harry Powers, the killer returns to Asta’s home in Chicago to kidnap and brutally murder her three beautiful children. In Phillips’s retelling, Emily Thornhill, a lovely staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, covers the case with her photographer colleague, Eric Lindstrom, and the Eicher family dog, Duty. She falls in love with the Eicher family banker, William Malone, who bankrolls much of the investigation, but she also becomes enthralled with the memory of the three dead children: simple Grethe; her brave brother, Hart; and their precocious little sister, Annabel. Phillips’s plot is engaging, romantic, and fecund; her characters are beautiful, accomplished, and good—except for the bad guy, who is very bad indeed. The book veers dangerously close to melodrama, and the story drags when trying to stick too closely to the truth, but Phillips is a reader’s writer. For every tedious page of the murder trial, mired in the story-lethal muck of facts, there is one of soaring lyricism. The best bits are Phillips’s recreation of her characters’ dreams, and especially the ethereal afterlife of the enchanting young Annabel, who is only nine when she is killed in a muddy field in Quiet Dell, W.Va.

The Miami Herald  says:  “Phillips’ extensive reporting—she quotes from newspaper stories, letters between Eicher and her ‘suitor’ and the trial transcript—gives the book its considerable heft. And her creation of a Chicago reporter named Emily Thornhill helps to frame the story of the eight-decade-old event in a fresh way. Quiet Dell is a smart combination of true crime, history and fiction tied together with Phillips’ seamlessly elegant writing….As the book proceeds to its dark conclusion, Emily offers readers a glimpse of light.”

“Phillips . . . fuses the established facts surrounding the 1931 trial of serial killer Harry Powers with her imagined version of the victims’ inner lives and the fictional lives of a handful of characters connected by the crimes. Financially strapped since her husband’s death, Asta Eicher lives with her three children in a large suburban Chicago house where she takes in boarders. Devoted to her and the children, former boarder Charles O’Boyle, who has prospered in his business, proposes to Asta while celebrating a joyful Christmas with the family in 1930. Aware he is gay, she turns him down. Instead, she assumes she will solve her problems by marrying Cornelius Pierson, with whom she’s secretly begun corresponding through the American Friendship Society (think snail-mail Match.com). In July 1931, Asta leaves her children with a babysitter while she travels with Cornelius to set up the family’s new home. A week later, Cornelius returns alone to fetch the kids. Phillips brings the Eichers to vivid life–Asta’s guilts, 14-year-old Grethe’s innocence, 12-year-old Hart’s protectiveness, 9-year-old Annabel’s spirit–and wisely eschews the grisly details of their deaths. Months later, the police discover the Eichers’ remains in the basement of a garage belonging to Harry Powers in Quiet Dell, W.V. Charged with the Eichers’ murders, Powers is indicted for the murder of Dorothy Lemke, whose body has also been discovered in the garage, because the circumstantial evidence in her case is stronger. The snippets of actual court testimony and reportage included are harrowing. While digging up dirt on Powers, (fictional) Chicago Tribune reporter Emily Thornhill falls deeply in love with Asta’s (real-life) banker. She also takes in an orphaned street urchin. So in the aftermath of one family’s destruction, Emily creates a new if unconventional “family” of people she loves. Phillips’ prose is as haunting as the questions she raises about the natures of sin, evil and grace,” says Kirkus Reviews.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune says: “Gripping…Chilling…The novel’s heartbeat is Emily, a Chicago Tribune reporter covering Powers’ arrest and trial…Quiet Dell does what Emily can’t, thoughtfully grafting a 21st-century sensibility onto 20th-century ghastliness. Emily resists the fetters placed on her as a journalist and a woman, while Eric, a gay photographer who accompanies her, is a keen observer of closeted life in the South. Phillips exposes the era’s prejudices less to render judgment than to show how cannily people like Emily and Eric worked around them.”

When is it available?

This riveting novel is on the shelves at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Mark Twain branch.

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