For much of her life, Jayne Anne Phillips has been fascinated by a mass murder in her native West Virginia. In 1931, the Eicher family was slaughtered in the town of Quiet Dell by Harry Powers, who seduced a widowed mother of three through a lonely-hearts ad. Phillips briefly mentioned the calamity in her 1984 debut novel, "Machine Dreams." With "Quiet Dell," a gripping if shaggy novel, she gives the story a fuller treatment.
"The Eichers were a charmed and beautiful village on which dark stars fell," Phillips writes, in a line that encapsulates the lightly mythic tone of the book's drama. Asta Eicher's family business had hit the skids, and Powers promised security, but the early pages largely focus on Asta's young daughter Annabel. Her dreamy fascination with "fairies and spirits and pronouncements" gives the opening chapters a gauzy cast that only makes the family's demise more chilling when it comes.
The novel's heartbeat, though, is Emily, a Chicago Tribune reporter covering Powers' arrest and trial. She's assigned to bring a "woman's angle," which she privately recognizes for the sexism it is. As the papers deem Powers a "Romeo" and "love criminal," Emily notes that, "Powers and the case itself were excuses to shame women and keep them in their places. She could not entertain the deeper questions for the Tribune; her dispatches must be entertaining and factually accurate, but her bias underscored every line."
"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.
Emily and Eric are inventions, but the book is rooted in fact, with some details novel-perfect: Powers' real first name was Harm, his defense attorney's last name was Law, and the trial was held in an opera house. Phillips gives Powers' reckoning life and spark, but she makes some questionable decisions as well. Emily takes on a homeless boy as an assistant and ward (redemption arc, coming through!), and little Annabel returns in interludes that are appropriately ethereal ("The light is soft and full, like twilight, though it will never be twilight …") but too thin to achieve their intended chilling effect.
Still, "Quiet Dell" has the pleasures of a procedural, bolstered by Phillips' research. When Emily asks her new charge whether he minds reading so many newspaper stories about mass murder, he demurs. "No," he says. "It's like a detective story." That's true for this book, too.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Phoenix.