Jayne Anne Phillips’s new novel was inspired by one of America’s most sensational mass murders. Quiet Dell follows a grisly true crime in which a serial killer known by the alias Harry Powers (the press called him “Bluebeard”) murdered 45-year-old Illinois widow Asta Eichler and her three children and Dorothy Lemke, a Massachusetts divorcee. Powers buried all five bodies outside a garage in Quiet Dell, West Virginia, where he had confined and then killed them. It was the summer of 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. The arrest and trial of the serial killer of numerous women who answered his personal ad through a matchmaking service mesmerized the American public. The trial was held in the opera house in Clarksburg, West Virginia, with all 1200 seats filled throughout the three-day trial, the accused and witnesses standing on stage to give testimony as if in a massive murder pageant.
The “murder garage” was not far from where Jayne Anne Phillips grew up; the crime had haunted her since childhood. Phillips was ten or eleven when her mother first told her about the crime, Phillips told me over lunch in her apartment in Chelsea in New York. Her mother had seen the site in 1931. “It made such an impression on her. She was six years old, walking along the dusty road, holding her mother’s hand, with cars as far as she could see. The garage was being taken apart.” (Pieces of the garage were sold as souvenirs.) More than 50,000 cars passed along Quiet Dell Road so people could gawk.
“It was one of the first crimes sensationalized in the media, in the middle of the Depression, when so many were struggling, kids were starving,” Phillips said. “Thousands of people walked past the murder site from six or seven states away. It was considered so horrible and otherworldly, it was as though a rocket ship from the future was buried in the ground.”
Phillips, recognized as a virtuoso since her 1979 story collection Black Tickets, praised by Raymond Carver and honored with a Sue Kaufman award for first fiction, has a penchant for mixing reality and invention. Her mythic first novel, Machine Dreams (1984), traced the dissolution of an American family from World War II through the Vietnam era. Lark and Termite (2008), a finalist for the National Book Critics award and the National Book Award, centered on a massacre of civilians by U.S. military at No Gun Ri in July 1950 that was not reported until decades after the war. Quiet Dell is a departure, with its Victorian-style spectral presences, most prominently the precocious and prescient youngest Eichler child, Annabel, who hovers over many scenes. Phillips said she was influenced by her favorite Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, “The Little Match Girl,” and by Dickens. (She compares Annabel’s time travels to those of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, and points out that Great Expectations was also a child’s journey.)
“He had an entire system of phrases culled from romance magazines, interviews with Rudolph Valentino, he used in the letters he wrote to the lonely women.”
Phillips wrote the eerie opening paragraph, set at the Eichler home on Christmas Eve, 1930, in Oak Park, Illinois, for the Oracle at Boston’s “First Night” celebration 20 years ago. It is in the voice of the fanciful young Annabel. “When the year turns, there are bells on the wind.…My grandmother said there was a whisper for each on dead that year, and a feather drifting for each one waiting to be born.”
“Annabel pulled me into the story,” Phillips said. ”My sense of her compelled me to write the book. Like the ‘Little Match Girl,’ she sees visions. She has a kindred spirit in her grandmother. The book begins with this idea of death and birth almost being that brush against each other. We begin with Annabel’s imaginings. The book blossoms out of that sense of life as she perceives it.”
Phillips mediates the darkness of the crime with an overlay of fiction. “In the first part of the book you meet the family. You’re inside the heads of each of the children. After the murders, we continue to see the family in another dimension, another form, we see them through Annabel’s perceptions.”
Phillips follows the investigation and trial as it was reported at the time, using the real names for the victims, the murderer, the police, and the investigators. She quotes newspapers, trial transcripts, and other documents, and includes photographs taken at the time. “There are photos of the bodies in the morgue, bodies loaded in caskets, sent to Pennsylvania to be cremated, then to Oak Ridge, Illinois to be buried. The banker for the family, William Malone, paid for this personally. All that is true.”
Some of the photos in the book were taken by a Clarksburg, West Virginia photographer, Floyd E. Sayre, who later took the class pictures for Phillips’ school. “He was there, at the scene of the crime,” Phillips said as she clicked through the complete set of Sayre photos in her website, including an image of the mob that threatened to take vigilante justice on the killer not long after he was arrested, and the striking cover photo, of a crowd surrounding the site where investigators had unearthed the bodies of the Eichlers and the Massachusetts woman Powers had murdered.
Quiet Dell is, Phillips said, “a story about orphan children falling victim to predators. It’s also about women; the tone the newspapers of the time took was that this was a lesson to middle-aged women who might stray. It sent a warning about the dangers inherent in sexuality.”
Emily Thornhill, the 35-year-old Chicago Tribune reporter who makes it her mission to bring Powers to justice, is an invented character and the moral backbone of the novel, a grounded counterpart to the otherworldly Annabel. Emily is free-spirited and independent, in contrast to the women Harry Powers made his targets. Emily, Phillips noted, was an homage to her “intrepid” mother, a grade school teacher and remedial reading specialist who was protective of her most vulnerable students. “She was someone who would intervene.”
Phillips also invented the character of the talented Tribune photographer, Eric Lindstrom, a closeted gay man who works alongside Emily, and of a 12 year old orphan boy she named Randolph Phillips after her father. Together with William Malone and Charles O’Reilly, a former boarder at the Eichlers who helps police capture Powers, they become a family of sorts through the course of the novel.
Was Harry Powers evil? “I began to have a sense of him as a broken clock,” Phillips said. “He liked to take watches apart and put them back together. He can’t figure out what empathy is.” As she writes in the novel, “He was unknowable, even as a child, to himself, to others. Born different, cunning. Manipulative, unloving remorseless. Curious. Covert. Taking things apart to see inside them. A clock. A dead bird. A living bird. Blood on his fingers….”
He could be very convincing, she said. “He could extend an almost mesmerizing energy. Not so unusual in sociopaths.”
Powers was corresponding with more than 200 women at the time of his arrest. “He had an entire system of phrases culled from romance magazines, interviews with Rudolph Valentino, he used in the letters he wrote to the lonely women. He would propose that the correspondence go on for six months before they would meet. He was good at picking vulnerable people. He traveled with them, he visited them. These women weren’t stupid. He was very very skilled.”
“There are so many connections to the present,” she added. “Then the whole world spun around the printed word. Newspapers came out twice a day, people wrote letters. Now we have the Internet—cyberstalking, the Craigslist killer. There always will be men like Powers. And today, as in the 1930s, so many children are homeless and unprotected and preyed upon.”
“Life was merciless, then briefly miraculous,” Phillips writes toward the end of Quiet Dell. With her artful fusion of fact and fiction, Phillips pulls off a rare sense of lightness and grace at the end of the novel. “The relationships and deep love developing among the people drawn to the tragedy represent a counterpart to the darkness,” she said. “Despite this tragedy, they remember the children and love and value one another. And find what redemption they can. My reason for writing the book was to make these children’s lives real and memorable. To make sure they were not erased.”