In 1931, Harry F. Powers — using the alias Cornelius O. Pierson — picked up a widow and her three children in Chicago and took them to Quiet Dell, W.Va., where he murdered them.
The story became sensational; information on the murders and the subsequent trial was printed and reprinted in newspapers across the country. Almost overnight, Quiet Dell became infamous across the country.
Understandably Jayne Anne Phillips, born and reared in another small town nearby, was aware of the murders, her interest sparked by her mother’s childhood recollection of the lines of gawkers’ cars heading to the crime scene.
In an interview, Phillips said “an allegiance to the victims” led to her decision to write her novel, “Quiet Dell,” about the case and “to make the Eicher family real to the reader.”
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The story opens on a Christmas Day with Asta Eicher and her children, Greta, 14; Harry, 12; and Annabelle, 9, and follows them for six months until they end up in Quiet Dell.
Asta, widowed unexpectedly during the Great Depression, rented rooms in her home and did various jobs, but it was not enough for the family to survive.
After responding to a childless widower’s lonely-hearts advertisement, she began an almost daily correspondence with Powers. In his letters, Powers seemed chivalrous and kindhearted, promising to cherish her and her children. It will be one of those letters that later leads the lawmen to him.
The story has a perspective from each member of the family, but it is in the voice of the youngest daughter, Annabelle, that the reader feels the full weight of the impending catastrophe.
Annabelle is wildly imaginative, putting on plays with her older siblings as actors, and her sections of the book have a dreamy and almost otherworldly aspect. This ethereal quality does not lessen the suspense of driving from Chicago with a murderer whose facade of gentility begins to peel away the closer they get to Quiet Dell.
Ultimately, when Powers drugs and then drags the children from the car into his murder shed — created specifically for that grisly purpose — Annabelle floats above the horror.
Asked about the child’s literary out-of-body escape, Phillips explained that “people in traumatic circumstances leave their bodies. In Quiet Dell it seems like the cosmos are protecting Annabelle — a force of good in the world.”
The circumstances of an entire family massacred in a small town might remind the reader of the 1959 murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kan., recounted by Truman Capote’s 1965 bestseller “In Cold Blood.” In both books, the reader follows the family up to the cusp of its murder and then moves into the perspective of other characters.
Phillips dislikes the comparison, however, and stated that “Quiet Dell” was unlike “In Cold Blood,” “which is about the murderers.” Her book, she said, “is about a time, an era. Ultimately, this book is about the victims.”
It shifts into the perspective of Emily Thornhill, a newspaperwoman investigating the disappearance of the Eicher family, who will not be found in their graves near the shed for two months. Thornhill’s quick discovery of her own love shortly after the investigation begins seems too neat.
Phillips succeeds in making a family — famous in America by their gruesome death — vivid and real. She encapsulates the desperation, the tragic misjudgment and the series of moments where the failure to intervene dooms each member of a family.
When the details of the case came out, the newspapers used Asta as a lesson to middle-aged women, an example of the danger of attempting to move outside their role as mothers or widows and search for love again.
The novel is not satisfied with only casting blame on Powers — who went on to kill another lonely woman for her money before he was caught — but also implicates the entire culture that allowed the women to become his targets. Yet, the efforts to instill deeper meaning into this hideous crime may leave the reader unsatisfied.
“Terrible things happen,” Phillips said. “Human beings become predators — but fiction tries to find meaning. ‘Quiet Dell’ is about people who have the strength, energy, hopefulness to intervene and that very intervention binds them together.”
Leanna Bales is an intern with University of Missouri-Kansas City Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (444 pages; Scribner; $28)