Quiet Dell

Jayne Anne Phillips

Published by Jonathan Cape UK, 24 April 2014, Scribner US

464pp, hardback, £18.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner


Pay no heed to the title. Quiet Dell is anything but tranquil. Rather, it’s a disturbing tale of murder and morality strung between polar extremes of goodness and evil. It’s also a stylistic excursion that takes extreme risks, flirts with the outer limits of literary good taste and still delivers a narrative of powerful appeal.

Opening with the Eicher household in Depression-era Chicago, the story lingers lengthily on the family set-up – widowed Asta, damaged oldest daughter Grethe, extravagantly imaginative second daughter Annabel and doughty son Hart. Their husband/father’s sudden death has left the family in financial difficulty, yet the household is sprightly, warm and creative (shades of Little Women here).

However a mood of threat and chill foreboding hangs over the home-made Christmas festivities at which they will be joined by an ex-lodger, Mr O’Doyle. Is his involvement with the Eichers straightforward or creepy? What, despite his homosexual orientation, of his marriage proposal to Asta? Sincere or sinister?

Phillips expertly evokes a mood of dream, frisson and hectic expectation as the snow falls and a fallen tree points fatefully to the front door. Yet this suspenseful opening phase of the narrative is almost a preface to the story proper, the fact-based tale of brutal serial killer Harry Powers who used matrimonial agencies and a pretence of wealth and trust to lure middle-aged women to their deaths. This part of the book introduces an entirely new cast of characters, many of them drawn from history despite their extraordinary names – Harm, Grimm, Law – but led by a saintly fictional modern hero, Chicago Tribune journalist Emily Thornhill.

The case of Powers has fascinated Phillips since childhood. She grew up near Quiet Dell and her mother remembered walking past the scene when crowds of onlookers watched Powers’ garage being dismantled. Powers was caught, tried and executed for one murder, but the killing of the Eichers was not part of his indictment, even though all five bodies were found close together behind his garage in Quiet Dell. The novel is thus, the author acknowledges, partly a tribute to and memorial of the Eicher children. Photographs of the family are included in its pages.

There’s no disputing the cruel savagery of all the murders, which the author describes impressionistically rather than voyeuristically. At the other end of the scale, Thornhill performs acts of near fairytale goodness. Her integrity is clouded, though, by a sudden yet intense love affair which introduces a different dimension to the moral argument. What was right and proper in that era, especially for women? And how were circumstances perceived differently when viewed through society’s lenses of age, class and income?

Oddities of content abound in the novel – purple prose, whimsical spirits – but Phillips has the imaginative verve and sincerity to carry it all off, delivering a story both gritty and ethereal, base and rhapsodic. Although she cut her teeth with Black Tickets, a volume of short stories labelled at the time as belonging to the dirty realist school, she has matured into a hard-to-categorize writer who takes risks. Quiet Dell, a graceful artifice with a moral heart, is living, compelling proof.

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