Quiet Dell is the story of an American serial killer, captured through a series of elegiac vignettesby Hephzibah Anderson / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (Jonathan Cape, £18.99)
The Quiet Dell murders gripped Depression-era America, a true crime sensation whose grisly discoveries and showy trial, which took place in an opera house, played out on the pages of national newspapers. Novelist Jayne Anne Phillips first heard of the case from her mother, who was just six years old when she was taken to the West Virginia garage where serial killer Harry Powers butchered and buried two of the women he lured through lonely-hearts ads. One victim, widow Asta Eicher, had three young children who also met their ends there, and it’s the Eichers’ story that forms the initial focus of Phillips’s attentive novel, captured through a series of elegiac vignettes. However, when the bodies of the Eicher family are discovered, barely a quarter of the way in to the novel, the story shifts to Emily Thornhill, a fictional Chicago newshound reminiscent of a Katharine Hepburn heroine. Emily’s affinity with the youngest Eicher, Annabel, and with the women whose letters filled the killer’s mailbox, enables her to see beyond the mythmaking of her colleagues’ coverage, who turn the story into a cautionary tale about female lasciviousness.
Phillips’s own handling of the story is curious. As if she feels its evil too keenly, she wraps Emily in a love affair and then adds an orphaned boy who bonds with the Eicher’s pet dog. Occasionally, Annabel seems to hover ghost-like above. Though never less than engaging, Quiet Dell strays a little too close to sentimentality in its efforts to marry fact and fiction.