Dark Tales, Beautifully Told
In the 1920s and '30s, a serial killer by the name of Harry F. Powers preyed on middle-aged women. He found them through matrimonial agencies, keeping up lengthy correspondences in the guise of a cultivated businessman. In June 1931, he murdered Asta Eicher, an Illinois mother of three, on his property in Quiet Dell, W.Va. Then he fetched her children from Illinois and killed them, too. Finally, after one more murder, of a Massachusetts woman named Dorothy Lemke, he was caught, tried, convicted and hanged.
The media frenzy focused on the most lurid, tabloid aspects of the "West Virginia bluebeard," and there followed glamorizing depictions—most notably the hair-raising Charles Laughton film, "The Night of the Hunter." So Jayne Anne Phillips had her work cut out for her when she decided to retell the story and transcend the bloody spectacle to find, as one character puts it, "beauty arisen from devastation."
is the lovely result, and its success is due to a bold decision: Ms. Phillips has written a serial killer novel in which the serial killer hardly appears. She begins by sensitively fleshing out the lives of Asta and her children Grethe, Hart and Annabel, describing the last Christmas before their deaths. Annabel, a religious 9-year-old with an irrepressible artistic disposition, especially captures Ms. Phillips's sympathies. Asta is newly widowed (her husband was killed by a streetcar) and sees in Powers's gentlemanly missives security for her family. She is guilty, in Ms. Phillips's telling, only of having too much faith in human decency: "Was it so unbelievable that a good man existed?" she wonders.
This trust ends in tragedy, and in the one section in which Powers figures centrally—the gut-wrenching drive with the children from Illinois to West Virginia, where they expect to meet their mother—the book's intimacy with the victims makes his crimes merely odious rather than sensational.
This is the opinion held by Emily Thornhill, a Chicago Tribune reporter assigned to the story. A memorable character, and one of the few Ms. Phillips has invented from scratch, Emily becomes the story's focal point, as we follow her restive reporting between the Midwest and Appalachia. (Ms. Phillips embellishes the striking, sepia-tinted sense of place by including real photographs and newspaper clippings.) Emily is accompanied by her closeted gay colleague Eric Lindstrom, and William Malone, the bank president from the Eichers' hometown, who feels he should have done more to protect the family after he noticed Powers's attempts to access their savings.
Despite its superficial resemblance to Truman Capote's In Cold Blood
, Quiet Dell
isn't about the psychology or motives of the killer. Emily is fixated on telling the stories of the victims and somehow redeeming Asta's costly beliefs in kindness and support. As gossip around the murders builds, Ms. Phillips deepens Emily's friendship with Eric and has her begin a love affair with the banker, bonds forged in the fires of shared outrage. Emily believes "that together they are a living opposition to Powers's cruelty, that such goodness—she uses the word repeatedly—flies in the face of darkness."
This is a novel of unabashed yesteryear qualities. It expresses no moral ambivalence about the murders or the justice of Powers's execution. There is an intentionally storybook manner to Emily's relationships. And there are even brief sections, lightly handled, told from Annabel's point of view as an angel whose spirit Emily can faintly discern. There is a glowing beauty to the book's brave, generous version of history. As Emily's thinks of her dispatches, so Ms. Phillips might say of her novel: "Love, of course, was her angle."