The stories we grow up with have uncommon power. They may crystallize in our consciousness and influence our views in perpetuity, or they may needle and goad, begging further examination and inquiry.
The true story of the 1931 murder of two women and three children by a serial killer in West Virginia has deep roots in the psyche of Jayne Anne Phillips. She first heard it from her mother, who’d been taken to view the crime scene as a little girl. Eventually the material would sprout in Phillips’s fiction: first as an oblique reference in her 1984 novel, “Machine Dreams,” and now as the basis of her ninth book, “Quiet Dell.”
Here she gives herself over to the story with an attentiveness bordering on the devout. Piecing together history and fiction, she creates an elaborate synthesis, combining imagined details with primary documents; characters pieced from research with characters cut from whole cloth; and gritty points of fact with mystical glimpses of the afterlife.
Phillips delivers us first into the world of the recently widowed Asta Eicher and her three children. They reside in Park Ridge, Ill., in a house replete with Haviland china, gaslit sconces, and a “shiny piano,”a house where they formerly enjoyed such pleasures as “hand-turning ice cream, playing croquet by lamplight, listening to gramophone records.” But money has grown scarce, and Asta, driven to “secure lives for her children, and stability,” has found a suitor through a lonely-hearts club. Although she knows him only through his letters, she agrees to become his wife.
The first hundred pages set the stage for the tragedy to come. It gives nothing away to reveal that the four Eichers are among the murder victims; the fifth is another woman lured by the lonely-hearts predator, a man the press dubs “Bluebeard.”
The next 350-odd pages of the book chronicle the crime’s aftermath. We follow the efforts of one Emily Thornhill, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, to discover what happened between the time the family left their home and the time, five weeks later, when their bodies were discovered on a farm in Quiet Dell, West Va. She covers not only the investigation but the trial, becoming so personally involved that it is she who accompanies the bodies when they are sent home by train for burial.
In her acknowledgments, Phillips says she created Emily in homage to her own mother, and Emily’s valor, not to say saintliness, is unalloyed from beginning to end. Not only is she steadfast in her commitment to victims she never met, she’s apparently able to improve the lives of nearly everyone she meets, from the Tribune photographer with whom she teams to the young pickpocket she enlists as her helper.
In the course of events, she also manages to fall in love with a sympathetic bank president (in the space of 30 minutes, no less, during which time he also falls, equally hard, for her) and to melt the heart of the hard-boiled sheriff who provides her with exclusive access and scoops. She even adopts the sole surviving Eicher: their dog, who helps identify the killer.
“Quiet Dell” reads like a labor of love, with some emphasis on labor. Phillips’s effort to do justice — aesthetic and moral — to the victims feels bold and honorable. She wisely refrains from depicting the actual murders and steers clear of titillating or prurient reconstructions. But I wonder whether she errs slightly in the opposite direction.
The prose style suggests a hope that the vileness of the events might be countered with compensatory gallantry. Characters speak with the exaggerated refinement of actors in a parlor theatrical: “I do like a good salver.” “[W]e are on a first name basis, for we nearly perished together.” “What have you to say to me? Shall I drink my wine down first?” By endowing them with extravagant gentility and goodness, Phillips renders them not quite credible. And at times the book is hobbled by excess fidelity to even the most minor ancillary details.
It is when Phillips is least faithful to historical record that “Quiet Dell” grows most moving, even transporting. Sprinkled throughout the book are passages evoking the supple, soaring consciousness of the youngest Eicher, a child named Annabel, after her soul has left her body.
In these sections, time kaleidoscopes, senses collide, and death is an unfolding into something greater: “Annabel hears a clatter of hoofbeats. A horse of some weight travels fast over hard ground. There is no ground, but this world contains every sound . . . as though she rides upon the horse, feeling its weight and the bellows of its breath, a night sky opens to receive her. She knows the constellations and begins to count their stars.” In these brief interludes, Phillips allows her own ample gifts to soar.
Leah Hager Cohen is the author, most recently, of “I Don’t Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t).’’