"Quiet Dell" by Jayne Ann Phillips revives a crime committed in the 1930s and shows the way obsession over a distant event unrelated to one's own life still can take over and cloud the emotions - both through Emily Thornhill, one of the novel's main characters, and through Phillips, the novel's author.
The story focuses on a multiple murder committed by a con man, the damage it causes in the surrounding community and the reporter who feels compelled to bring the murderer to justice. Phillips creates the atmosphere with a blend of fictionalized situations and conversations - which make the characters feel more real - and actual accounts from the events, such as photos, court transcripts and newspaper articles.
"Quiet Dell" never glamorizes the serial killer; in fact, the book and its characters are downright disparaging toward Harry Powers (one of many aliases), who wooed women with letters through lonely hearts correspondence clubs and then killed them. In the case of Asta Eicher, Powers also killed her three children (and soundly kicked the dog - depriving it of its bark - for good measure). Instead of delving into Powers' psychology, Phillips focuses on the Eicher family and the way their deaths cause a ripple effect through their community and beyond.
Starting the story in the Eicher home, where youngest child Annabelle is planning a Christmas play, Phillips carefully constructs the character of each family member and shows echoes of the potential that the children - particularly Annabelle - could have reached had they lived. She also paints mother Asta as a common-sense widow who wants to do what's best for her family, rather than someone naive and desperate for attention, as she and Powers' other "lovers" were painted in the media at the time.
Phillips does not dwell on the details of the inevitable deaths, instead choosing to skip from the fateful car ride with Powers to the moment the bodies are found. One strange and inexplicable aspect of the story is Phillips' decision to turn Annabelle into a ghost. While this is not prominently featured in the story, it adds a strange make-believe element that jolts the reader from a riveting and believable story back to the reality that this is an historical fiction.
The most interesting and complex character in the book is the fictional Emily Thornhill, a Chicago Tribune reporter assigned to cover the trial who ends up becoming the family's post-mortem protector. Phillips clearly lives vicariously through Thornhill, who adopts the Eichers' orphaned dog; saves drawings and family items from a rummage sale; and writes articles about Powers throughout the trial that are passionately biased against him before the verdict is decided. Perhaps because the Eichers have suffered such a terrible fate, Phillips imbues Emily with extraordinarily good luck throughout the story, but it's tough not to root for her. Phillips creates strong supporting characters in Emily's fellow reporter, Eric; Eicher family friend and local bank manager William; and Mason, an orphan boy who becomes Emily's assistant.
In the end the story says more about Phillips than it does about her cast of characters, both real and imagined. Phillips explains on the book jacket that she was unable to let go of the story after hearing it from her mother, who was a child at the time of the murders. Phillips attempts to show the marks this event has left on those who lived through it and investigated it ... but she shows readers that her own preoccupation with the events has deeply changed her as well.