He took from his pocket a white linen handkerchief and removed his round gold spectacles. He cleaned the lenses carefully and folded the handkerchief, replacing it in his front suit pockets so that one corner crisply protruded. He regarded himself in the driver’s rearview mirror and smoothed his bow tie. Then he got out of the automobile and walked quickly to the front porch. – from Quiet Dell, page 84 –
Jayne Anne Phillips newest novel is based on the true story of Henry Powers who was a serial killer during the Great Depression, and lured his victims through lonely-hearts advertisements which promised marriage. When Powers (who actually went by several aliases) killed Asta Eicher and her three children (all of whom were under the age of twelve), he did not count on the determination of those who knew the family to seek justice. Those murders resulted in his arrest and later conviction. He was put to death for his crimes.
Phillips was intrigued with the story and especially touched by the life of Annabelle, the youngest Eicher child, who was artistic and full of life. In fact, Phillips was only six years old when her mother walked her past the scene of the murders at Quiet Dell, West Virginia. This memory has haunted Phillips and was the inspiration for her novel.
The book begins before the murders and introduces the reader to the Eicher family, with a special focus on Annabelle. Emily Thornhill and her cohort Eric Lindstrom are two of the non-historical characters conjured up through the imagination of the author. They arrive after the murders as journalists intent on uncovering the crime and finding justice for the family. Much of the novel centers around Emily, a single woman with an unusual profession (at that time) who becomes emotionally invested in the crime. Her character is forever changed through the course of the investigation and trial. She discovers love and family and finds herself connected to the Eichers on many levels.
Jayne Anne Phillips has done a masterful job of recreating the events of 1931 and in the process introduces the reader to beautifully wrought fictional characters. Her novel is a blend of fact and fiction, eliciting strong emotions and in the process giving a voice to the victims of Powers’ crimes.
Quiet Dell is the best of fiction – strong characters, carefully wrought details, historical accuracy and an emotional message of redemption and justice for its characters. I loved this book and found myself thinking of the characters…and the real life victims…even after turning the final page.
Emotionally rich and exceptionally written, Quiet Dell will appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction, crime fiction, and literary fiction.
Listen to the NPR piece about the book.