In an afterword, Jayne Anne Phillips reveals that there are only four characters in her new novel, QUIET DELL, who were entirely invented. The rest were inspired by real-life figures involved in a murder mystery that has fascinated the author since childhood, when her mother first told her the story of the murders that happened in Quiet Dell in 1931.
Unsurprisingly for this National Book Award nominee, the story that Phillips tells is hardly in the straightforward style of "true crime." Instead, she begins her novel with an extended opening introducing us to the doomed Eicher family, primarily as the family prepares to celebrate Christmas in their home outside Chicago. Asta Eicher is still conflicted over the death of her husband a few years earlier; Heinrich was a sexually aggressive man who had recently admitted to having an affair and whose demise on the streetcar tracks of Chicago may or may not have been an accident. And this Christmas, the small family is also facing its first holiday season since the death of Heinrich's mother. Youngest daughter Annabel is taking her grandmother's death especially hard; the Christmas pageant that she writes features her grandmother (played by her doll) in a leading role.
"QUIET DELL brilliantly illustrates how historical fiction can offer far more than simple retellings of the past. Fiction can impart not only perspective but also meaning on even the most distant and harrowing events."
Annabel is a dreamy child, unlike her older sister Grethe (who has vision and learning difficulties following a childhood illness) and her older brother Hart, who is more pragmatic. She has no knowledge of the fears and insecurities that plague her mother, Asta. Asta is worried that she will no longer have enough money to provide for her children; she has managed to bring in some extra income since her husband's death by taking in boarders, but that no longer seems reliable enough, especially during the Depression. Asta's long-time boarder and best friend, Charles, offers to marry her and provide for the family, but Asta is reluctant. For one thing, Charles is gay, and for another, Asta has already begun corresponding with another man, Cornelius O. Pierson.
Asta met Cornelius through a classified advertisement, and the two have been corresponding in increasingly flowery letters to one another. Cornelius has promised to marry Asta and to care for her children; she has confessed to him her loneliness and the failings of her first marriage. But Asta does not anticipate the extent of the horrors to which not only she, but also the rest of her family, will be subjected when she finally meets Cornelius in person.
Bringing these horrors to light --- and bringing a killer to justice --- is the aim of Emily Thornhill, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune assigned to cover the story after the Eichers' disappearance. She and her colleague, Eric Lindstrom, head to Quiet Dell, West Virginia, after reports of bodies uncovered there and the arrest of a man known as Harry Powers. Accompanied by the Eichers' dog, Duty (who plays a key role in identifying the killer), Emily and Eric become increasingly enmeshed in the case and determined to bring the truth to light. Meanwhile, in dreamy interludes, Annabel watches the case unfold from the afterlife, allowing her singular voice to permeate the entire book.
The bulk of the novel, the portion focusing on Emily's crusade, is both more traditional and less suspenseful than the first part, focused on the Eichers while they were still alive. Emily is a winning character (although her immediate head-over-heels attraction to the Eichers' banker offers a peculiar twist), and her quest to bring Pierson/Powers to justice offers legitimate interest. At times, the lyricism of the novel's first section bleeds into the language of the second, resulting in some unintentionally humorous dialogue, in particular. But overall, QUIET DELL brilliantly illustrates how historical fiction can offer far more than simple retellings of the past. Fiction can impart not only perspective but also meaning on even the most distant and harrowing events.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 25, 2013