“Quiet Dell” (Scribner), by Jayne Anne Phillips
In the 1930s, a man who called himself Cornelius O. Pierson began to correspond with a 45-year-old widow struggling to raise three young children in suburban Chicago. She had written to a matrimonial bureau — the Depression-era version of online dating — seeking someone with whom she might find “true friendship, fidelity and matrimony.”
Pierson, whose real name was Harry Powers, had represented himself as a wealthy, college-educated civil engineer and widower, although he was married at the time. A little more than six months after the couple found each other through the lonely hearts ads, Asta Eicher and her children were dead, brutally murdered by a con man who preyed on widows, then drained their bank accounts.
As a young girl growing up in West Virginia, Jayne Anne Phillips had heard about the sensational murder case from her mother. In her new novel, “Quiet Dell” — the name of the rural town where the slayings happened — she reconstructs the gruesome killings that had haunted her for decades.
It is an extraordinary achievement, a mesmerizing blend of fact and fiction that borrows from the historical record, including trial transcripts and newspaper accounts, but is cloaked in the shimmering language of a poet.
An award-winning writer perhaps best known for her story collection “Black Tickets,” Phillips does not alter the basic facts of the crime. But the inner lives of the characters and their relationships have been wholly imagined. In addition, she creates four fictional characters, including a sexually adventurous newspaper reporter and her gay newspaper colleague, who exchange Hepburn and Tracy-worthy banter. There is also a winsome street urchin who could have stepped out of a Dickens novel.
Of all the finely drawn characters — including one of fiction’s best dogs, a feisty little bull terrier named Duty — Phillips was clearly most affected by the plight of Powers’ youngest victim, 9-year-old Annabel Eicher, to whom she dedicates the book.
As the novel opens, Annabel has written a pageant for her siblings to perform at what would be their last Christmas together. Her mother worries out loud to a friend that the precocious Annabel may be too imaginative for her own good. As the narrative rolls toward its terrifying conclusion, Annabel will manage, in a figurative way, to soar above the dark story, just as Phillips does in her sepia-tinted tribute to her West Virginia roots.