CONCERNING QUIET DELL by JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS
My new novel, Quiet Dell, concerns an actual 1931 serial murder committed in a hamlet of the same name, near my hometown in West Virginia. A con-man led a double life, courted “wealthy” middle-aged widows through matrimonial agencies, and plotted to kill, supposedly for financial gain. He imprisoned and murdered an Illinois widow, Asta Eicher, her three children, who were 14, 12, and 9, and a Massachusetts divorcee, all of whom came to Quiet Dell willingly. The names of the characters whose lives the crime claimed or influenced are real: their thoughts, perceptions, and relationships are imagined. Their letters, the trial transcript, and various excerpted newspaper articles are quoted exactly from original documents. The tragedy preoccupied a Depression era nation for months. Quiet Dell, though it does not dwell on the murders themselves, makes real the world in which they happened, beginning the year previous to the murders and concluding with the murderer’s execution and its aftermath. A coda ends the story at the graves of the children, in whom the novel finds “the angelic core of the dark world.”
I was drawn to this material because I‘ve known about it all my life. The challenge was to write a novel whose beauty and depth might transcend the darkness of the story. This is a mythical crime in West Virginia. My mother used to tell me that she remembered holding her mother’s hand, walking along a crowded dirt road in the heat and dust of August –– cars parked on either side as far as she could see — past a ‘murder garage’ being taken apart, piece-by-piece, by souvenir-seekers. She was six years old.
Years later, a family friend gave me a small envelope he found in an antique dresser. It reads, across the front in pencil, “Piece of sound-proof board used in the terrible murdering, Aug, 1931.” The murders were called “the most horrible tragedy that has taken place in American annals.” The culture of the time justified intense interest in the case as a warning and lesson to women. The murderer, who was writing to over 200 women at the time of his arrest, was christened a modern Bluebeard. But what was the deeper story? Perhaps 1931 is not so distant: our cultural response to news of violence – the serial murder, the school shooting – reflects similar societal values and primal fears: a tribal response to what seems “evil” in human guise. Quiet Dell looks back at a supposedly more innocent time, a Depression era America in which newspapers and the printed word were still the lifeblood of the nation.
The novel begins the Christmas before the crime. The Eichers are a family twice “betrayed” by loss –by the death of the father, five years previous, and then at Thanksgiving 1930, by the death of the protective grandmother. The loss preoccupies Annabel, the 9-year-old, a “fanciful” child whose beloved grandmother told her, “Your dreams see past us,” and, “address me in your mind when I am gone.”
The discovery of the murderer’s true identity and his trial comprise the second half of the book. A 35-year-old Chicago reporter, Emily Thornhill, finds herself deeply involved in the story of the missing family, and especially with Annabel, the youngest child, whose own preoccupation with fairy tales seems a reflection of the crime and the murderer’s trial, which took place at the local Opera House before 1200 spectators. The accused was led on and offstage with a chain attached to a metal collar, before a towering backdrop of painted forest trees left over from a prior performance. Throughout the revelation of secrets both terrible and beautiful, Quiet Dell recounts the connections woven between us even in tragedy. Goodness may not triumph in our imperfect world, but does there exist a dimension in which goodness holds evil within it? Can personal courage, love, and perception of a larger realm in which evil occurs, actually diminish or overwhelm dark motives and tragic events? Quiet Dell considers these questions.