Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel, Quiet Dell, is based upon a real-life mass murder, but it's not like any true crime book you've ever read, nor much like the average whodunit.
Sometimes eerie and dreamlike, others grippingly tense, yet warmly human, always written with beauty and emotional power, Quiet Dell is a virtuoso performance by a highly original writer. Phillips' 2009 novel, Lark and Termite, was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Quiet Dell begins with its only chapter in first person, the voice of 9-year-old Annabel Eicher, a bright, imaginative child living in Park Ridge, a Chicago suburb, with her mother and two older siblings in 1930.
Phillips paints them for us vividly. Asta Eicher is a middle-aged widow struggling to maintain her family's comfortable lifestyle several years after her husband's sudden death. Sweet-natured daughter Grethe, 14, needs extra care after brain damage from measles left her permanently childlike; Hart is, at 12, the stalwart young man of the family; Annabel is simply a charmer.
In search of a suitor and a stepfather for her children, Asta turns to the precursor of online dating: a "marital agency" that, for a fee, connects lonely people via letters. Through it she corresponds for months with an articulate fellow calling himself Cornelius Pierson, who seems to be the answer to her dreams of an honest, solid family man.
He is not that. In the summer of 1931, Asta and her children will end up buried in a ditch on a remote farm several states away. They won't be his only victims.
The novel takes its title from the West Virginia hamlet where Pierson killed the Eichers and his last victim, Dorothy Lemke, another widow, and where he was finally apprehended. Phillips grew up in a town not far from Quiet Dell and has been aware of the case all her life; her mother had a childhood memory of seeing the "murder garage" taken apart by souvenir seekers.
The case has been fictionalized before, in the 1953 novel Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb and in the 1955 movie of the same name, with a notably frightening performance by Robert Mitchum as the killer.
But Phillips' emphasis is very different: She's interested in the victims and those affected by their deaths, not the murderer. In fact, Pierson — just one of his aliases — remains a mystery, although we learn a good bit about his background. Eloquent on the page (police discover he was corresponding with as many as 200 women), in person he's a "short, dull-seeming pod of a man," yet one able to manipulate many people.
Most of the characters in Quiet Dell are real people, but Phillips invents a handful, notably the woman who becomes its central character in the aftermath of the murders: "Emily Thornhill, thirty-five years old, of good family, 'finished' at Miss Porter's School, in Farmington, Connecticut, graduate of the University of Chicago, journalist for the Chicago Tribune. . . . She is happily unmarried, though she is not a maiden, and lives in a doorman building."
Emily, independent, intrepid and more interested in her work than in romance or family, is in some ways a counterpoint to Asta. But when she is assigned to cover the murders, she quickly develops an emotional bond to the family.
In part that's because of the one member of the household Pierson left behind: a bold little Boston terrier named Duty. To get away from the house with the children, Pierson tries to kill the dog, but it survives and will not only become Emily's companion but help to identify the Eichers' killer.
Emily's sense of kinship with the Eichers also comes from her friendship with two men: Charles O'Boyle, a close friend of Asta's, and William Malone, a powerful banker who was Asta's financial adviser and underwrites the Tribune's coverage of the case. Both men are racked with guilt because they feel they should have somehow saved the Eichers.
The family's deaths come to seem a dark and mysterious fate as Phillips subtly brings otherworldy elements into the novel. Although all are drawn from the historical record, the names associated with the case in Quiet Dell seem like bits of fairy tale: a sheriff named Grimm, a lawyer called Law, an inn called the Gore Hotel. The public response to the case — dubbed, of course, "the trial of the century" — is so great the trial is held on the stage of the town's opera house, with a backdrop of snowy trees. There's even a ragged orphan who finds a home.
Yet Phillips is always concerned with the real-world elements as well. Emily becomes angrily aware that in cases like Asta's the victim is often blamed: "News coverage, legitimate or yellow, constantly pressed the notion that a bad end awaited women who responded to invitation, who wished for romance and the only self-determination available to most: a respectable, financially solvent man. Woe to the buxom woman over forty who imagined sincere interest in her exhausted charms."
Emily will also, to her surprise, find her own romance with Malone. He's a married man, although his wife is mentally ill, so far gone in dementia she "did not remember him, or their history or concerns, for she did not remember herself." A friend calls the relationship "a bit too Mr. Rochester for comfort," but it's a true meeting of hearts and minds.
Other loving relationships will be forged in the wake of the murders as well, and in Quiet Dell that is the answer to fathomless evil, as Emily thinks: "She did not believe in evil, but in mistakes and conditions, in cause and effect across arcs so long that history might seem reasonless, but never was."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.