“God help me, I knew it then.”
Quiet Dell is an extraordinary piece of work, the recreation of an infamous murder spree in 1930s West Virginia from the killer’s arrest through his trial and execution, seen through the eyes of the victims and the Chicago reporter who tells the harrowing story. The Depression casts a pall on the future of widowed Asta Eicher, who lives with her three children—Grete, Hart and Annabel—in the home of her mother-in-law, Lavinia. When Lavinia dies, Asta is left to fend for herself with few resources to meet increasing debts and turns first to boarders for extra income. Still shattered by her husband’s premature death and the toll of marital demands on her delicate sensibilities, Eicher eschews the potential offer of marriage by a devoted boarder, Charles O’Boyle, opting instead for a reputable lonely-hearts column to meet a suitable man.
Hoarding the precious secret of her intended marriage to the object of her correspondence, Cornelius O. Pierce, Asta says goodbye to O’Boyle while awaiting the adventure ahead: a new home for herself and her children in West Virginia with a gentleman of means. Soon after, Asta is spirited away by her suitor, who later returns for the children, to reunite them with their mother. The family is never seen again. Neither is Cornelius O. Pierce, until another woman disappears. Dorothy Lemke’s body is discovered in a West Virginia barn, buried along with the Eicher family. The killer’s name is Harry Powers (AKA Pierce), only one of many pseudonyms. The bodies are recovered in the bucolic setting of Quiet Dell, a scene of such horror that the public clamors for justice, even the lynching of the murderer.
Assigned to cover the case for her Chicago newspaper with journalist Eric Lindstrom, Emily Thornhill begins with a visit to the banker financing the endeavor, William Malone. The pair are immediately drawn to one another, though he is married. Emily is on a mission to record the fate of the family, to tell their story as the truth unfolds: an unimaginable nightmare of torture and slow, agonizing death, from the trusting Asta to her brave son and fanciful younger daughter, whose spirit hovers over the novel. Phillips proves a master at inhabiting time and place, not only with historical accuracy but also a sense of the particularities of the era, from a rigorously moral society to the ease with which a killer roams freely and chooses his victims.
From the blooming relationship with Malone to the close friendship with Lindstrom forged in the trenches of their investigation of death’s trajectory, Emily’s continued affinity for the lost Annabel and her embrace of the Eicher’s small dog, a silent witness to the crimes, the scenario comes alive in the empty house once enjoyed by the children, in the chambers of their ugly demise, in the interrogation of Powers, who smugly denies culpability and the long months of the trial, where evidence of torture and murder is denied by an arrogant killer. Thornhill and Lindstrom brave the elements and the rigors of travel to interview an immigrant father who believed his son long dead and the relatives of Dorothy Lemke, who shared the family table with Powers. Emily cultivates local sources for her articles, describing every detail for the public, the sharp contrast of innocence and evil.
Adding another layer to the tale through the unexpected attraction between Thornhill and Malone, Phillips balances the scent of death and depravity with hope, developing memorable relationships among characters that not only add depth to the novel but broaden the scope of 1930s society to include expanded definitions of family. Though the circumstances are tragic, the characters are brilliantly drawn, realistic and multi-dimensional. Quiet Dell is scarred by a heinous murder spree, but humanity is redeemed as the tortured souls of the innocent are put to rest. Totally absorbing, this novel creates a window into the past, where real people relive an infamous moment in history yet rise above the banality of evil in the telling.