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Originally published Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 4:05 AM

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‘Quiet Dell’: a poetic novelization of a 1931 murder

Jayne Ann Phillips’ new novel, “Quiet Dell,” is a quiet and at times lovely literary account of a real-life horrific crime — the 1931 murder of a West Virginia family.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Quiet Dell’

by Jayne Ann Phillips

Scribner, 445 pp., $28

“Desperate people see a chance, and take it. Some are quite unlucky,” says a character in Jayne Anne Phillips’ elegant, moving page-turner “Quiet Dell.” Though the character, banker William Malone, has his own desperations of which we will learn in due time, he’s speaking of someone else: widow Asta Eicher, a mother of three in 1931 suburban Chicago. Struggling financially, Asta thought she had found a savior through a lonely hearts’ club — a man named Cornelius, whose refinement and education came across in his many letters, and whose life’s goal seemed to be to marry Asta and shelter her and the children from harm. Reality was far different: A con man with many aliases, he killed all four of the Eichers, leaving their bodies buried near a garage in Quiet Dell, West Virginia.

The story of Cornelius, aka Harry Powers, is a true one; and the murders (which also included another woman in his web, a Massachusetts divorcee) were said to be one of the first nationally sensationalized crimes in the country, with Powers becoming known to the nation as the “Bluebeard of Quiet Dell.” Phillips, author of several novels including “Machine Dreams” and “Lark and Termite,” grew up in West Virginia and heard stories of the crime as a child. Now, with the addition of a few fictional characters (only four, she tells us in an afterward), she’s turned an ugly story into something quietly poetic. It’s not a mystery — we know who did what, quite early on — but a combination of literary novel, print documentary (featuring a few photographs of the crime’s real people and places, and numerous quotes from original documents), and elegy.

Beginning with an achingly loving description of the Eicher family’s last Christmas, “Quiet Dell” is quickly handed over to the character who will shepherd us through the narrative: Emily Thornhill, a 35-year-old journalist for the Chicago Tribune. Bright, kind and no-nonsense, Emily is immensely appealing; we experience the investigation and the circuslike trial from her perspective. But much of the pleasure of “Quiet Dell” is how Phillips finds a sense of community through many smaller characters, and how you leave this dark story feeling that, somehow, goodness prevails.

Most compelling is Annabel, the 9-year-old youngest Eicher, who wafts and dances through the book like a sweetly smiling ghost. Early in the book, we learn about her fascination with books and plays, her love for her grandmother, her joyous engagement with life. After the crime, she doesn’t leave the novel, but seems to accompany Emily (who, in a different life, might have been a role model for her) in her travels: flying in “the blooming air” above Emily’s train; darting in and out of a hotel hallway; watching the trial unfold; leaving, in the novel’s last moment, a gift for Emily that softly binds past to present. Phillips dedicates the novel to Annabel; the child lights up the book, and still shines.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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