“Quiet Dell.” By Jayne Anne Phillips. Scribner. 438 pages.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When Jayne Anne Phillips was a child, her mother told her about a hideous crime that happened in Quiet Dell, West Virginia, not too far from where Phillips grew up in Buckhannon. Serial killer Harry E. Powers, aka Cornelius Pierson, among other aliases, murdered five people and buried them on his secluded property in 1931.
Phillips has said that the story haunted her for decades — she even referenced it in her early novel “Machine Dreams.”
Now Phillips brings us her vision of the true events.
Tightly weaving fact and fiction, she boldly uses extensive crime research from newspaper articles, case records, photos of the victims and trial transcripts to masterfully imagine the inner lives of actual people, as well as that of her invented characters.
Harry E. Powers, born Herman (Harm) Drenth, contacts women through The American Friendship Society letter exchange, an early version of Internet dating.
He preys on women who are older, widowed, divorced or lonely, who believe their chances at love and companionship are few.
Powers promises he will care for them, solve their loneliness or money problems.
His plan is to kill the women and take their wealth or belongings, but the murders seem to be his main goal.
Though the serial killer might be the obvious character to start a novel, Phillips instead provides exquisite detail of the victims’ lives, creating them as flesh and blood, rather than the tabloid sensations they later become.
We first meet the Eichers, a prosperous family living in the suburbs of Chicago: Heinrich, the father; mother Asta; children Grethe, who suffered brain damage from measles when she was 2; Hart, the only son; and young Annabel, a whimsical, mystical child whose “dreams see past us.”
The Eichers are a happy family, though Phillips does explore flaws that explain Asta’s vulnerability to Powers.
When Heinrich dies in an accident, the Eicher family descends to near poverty.
Asta, now well past 40, falls prey to Powers, now posing as Cornelius Pierson, and plans to marry him, assuring security for her and her family.
She leaves with Pierson for Quiet Dell to establish a new life.
A week later, Pierson returns alone to retrieve the children.
He needs them to withdraw money from Asta’s bank account, but that effort fails.
Upon returning to West Virginia, Pierson brutally murders the children and buries them with their mother, whom he had killed earlier.
Powers is finally captured, and, once the investigation is underway, we are introduced to fictitious reporter Emily Thornhill.
A thoroughly modern woman for the times, she quickly begins a romance of epic proportions with the Eicher’s family banker, William Malone, who underwrites the expenses for investigation.
Within the romantic relationship, Phillips explores the question with which we all grapple: Great goodness, as well as pure evil, can drop into our lives at any moment. Why is this?
While she does not clearly answer that question, through the characters, real and imagined, she provides a forum to explore how humans deal with the capriciousness of life.
Once the investigation of Powers’ crimes begins, we learn of another victim, buried with the Eichers: Dorothy Lemke, from Massachusetts.
It is her case that is ultimately used to bring murder charges against Powers. Authorities felt the Eicher case was too circumstantial, and they wanted something to stick.
After a trial in Clarksburg, Powers is convicted and sent to Moundsville Prison where he is hanged, in 1932.
The dark story is lightened through the spirit visits of young Annabel Eicher. Phillips is known for including surreal, magic realism touches, and she uses that technique with Annabel floating as a happy, ethereal creature watching the capture and trial of Powers.
She floats near heroine Emily Thornhill, even invading her dreams with clues.
Phillips’ characters are sympathetic and likable, yet, some fictitious characters might be deemed unnecessary, as they don’t add much to the story, and character details could have been tightened.
It also seems that ostensibly modern Emily actually is watched and guarded by every man she meets.
As I read, I remembered the more chilling tale about the same serial killer in West Virginia native Davis Grubbs’ novel “Night of the Hunter.”
Phillips gives us a broader scope of human nature in her novel, but neither Grubb nor Phillips provides much inner revelation into Powers’ evil.
Maybe that nature is something we will never fully understand. But serial killers in our society haunt us all and provide a real-life Big Bad Wolf.
Phillips’ “Quiet Dell” is engaging and rich, her strength as a writer.
Perhaps her personal haunting produced this epic novel to show us how easily we can become vulnerable, a cautionary note for us all.
By the way, Quiet Dell is a few miles south of Clarksburg. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Jayne Anne Phillips will read from a selection of her work at Fairmont State University on Sept. 11. More information about Jayne Anne Phillips is available on her website, http://jayneannephillips.com. Follow her on Twitter at @jayneanneonly.
Cat Pleska is a writer, educator and publisher. She is the president of Mountain State Press, an instructor of writer and literature at West Virginia State University and an essayist at West Virginia Public Radio. Her website is www.catpleska.com, and she can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.