Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel Quiet Dell (Scribner, 464 pgs) is a graceful rumination on the aftermath of a brutal tragedy. It is also an artful revision of the true crime novel, a sub-genre of fiction Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood made famous. Most such books investigate the mental workings and motivations of the criminal behind a famous crime. Phillips’ version of the infamous West Virginia murders in 1931 focuses on the experiences of the victims, Mrs. Asta Eichler, her three children and Emily Thornhill, the young journalist who reports the trial. Phillips will speak about the book at SCAD’s Ivy Hall on January 22.
The novel opens with scenes from the Eichlers’ preparations for Christmas. The house is decorated for the holidays, the dog barks in the hall, the children prepare their annual play for performance before dinner. Great tension, however, lurks behind this idyllic tableau. The children’s father and grandmother have recently died, and Asta, who has discovered that there is far less money than she had thought, must take out another mortgage on their large Victorian house near Chicago. She hopes that her epistolary relationship started through a matchmaking service will end in a safe and supportive marriage for her and her children.
After Asta and her three children are found dead far from home at Quiet Dell, a remote farm in West Virginia, Thornhill, a journalist for the Chicago Times Tribune, begins to follow the case. Though the rest of the novel takes place during the investigation and trial, Emily’s character — and the ways in which the trial change her — is the true subject. Emily’s life before the trial is controlled, ordered. She works hard and lives alone. As she investigates the murders, she becomes attached to the victims. Though she never met them, she feels a kinship because of the similarities between her life and theirs.
Emily’s observation that she could have been destitute and desperate like the Eichlers but for the help of her grandparents establishes the connection and provides a key structure for the novel, as Phillips creates a contrasting relationship between her story and theirs. Like Emily, after her own father’s passing, Asta and her children are left in great need after Mr. Eichler’s death. In Emily’s case, she was saved from uncertainty by her grandparents. Later, she falls in love with a man without knowing his character or background and finds a life partner. In contrast, Asta seeks a husband, and her similarly heedless jump at romance ends in despair.
This pattern – the Eichlers’ tragedy contrasted by Emily’s triumphs — is purposeful: It brings a feeling of hope into an otherwise tragic story. The happiness that Emily discovers through the course of the story salves the pain – for herself and for the reader – of the Eichler murders. As she notes, “the devil walks the earth. but there is so much heaven [here too].”
This quotation summarizes a critical theme: random evil exists, but so does good. While the good can never prevent or correct the evil, it can lessen the sting. As Emily realizes in the final chapters, nothing could have saved the Eichlers, but her future can be a fulfillment of what their lives began: a commitment to family and love.
Phillips’ beautiful novel is a tour de force through the light and dark of the human heart and a story not to be missed.
Click here to see historical photos from the crime case.