By Jayne Anne Phillips
"The law detects; grace alone conquers sin." -- St. Augustine
I met Jayne Anne Phillips in 2009, when we were part of a small group of artists and scholars sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation to work without everyday distractions for four weeks at their villa on Lake Como, Italy. She had begun writing Quiet Dell, an 80-plus-year-old story that she has made the remarkable literary work it is today. In the evenings our small group would read or discuss what we were doing, and I got my first glimpse of the power, beauty and horror of this novel.
The story begins at Christmas, 1930. Jayne Anne Phillip starts by setting an elegant stage for the brutal events about to befall the Eicher family -- a widowed mother, her three children, and Duty the dog -- in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois. Each gloriously depicted, precious moment contrasts and foreshadows the agony and death this family will endure.
Quiet Dell is a love story embedded in a nightmare. The nightmare is the true tale of Harry F. Powers, age 45 (a.k.a. Cornelius O. Pierson and born Harm (sic) Drenth), a serial murderer who lured widowed and spinster women into his romantic death trap by letter writing through the American Friendship Society, an upright marriage agency and surely a predecessor to Match.com or eHarmony. The Friendship Society advertised " ...correspondence leading to true friendship, fidelity and matrimony." The Eichers were one of at least two families he destroyed; evidence of others is only inferential, though at the time he had more than 200 women with whom he corresponded with.
The principal romance is between a Chicago Tribune reporter dispatched to cover the murders and trial, Emily Thornhill, and a gentleman banker whose generosity and compassion were a kindness the Eicher family experienced after their deaths. But there are other harmonic love stories (an orphaned child, another reporter, Duty the dog) spawned in the wake of the horror. Goodness is the only antidote, the light that can lead us from darkness.
Anna Eicher was a 45-year-old widow with escalating financial troubles. She was mother of Grethe (14 and developmentally delayed); Hart (12 and the "man" of the family); and Annabel (9, a gifted, dreamy girl to whom the book is dedicated) when she became prey for Powers. He claimed to be a man of means and decency who would provide for her emotionally and give her family the security that death had robbed them of. The Eicher family is at the heart of this novel, but we also meet the family of Dorothy Lemke, a divorcée from Massachusetts, whose body was discovered when the Eichers were exhumed from their shallow, muddy graves. It was upon the evidence of the Lemke killing that Powers was tried and convicted.
Quiet Dell is a West Virginia town, population 100, where Powers had property, a farm with a building he outfitted for his macabre pursuits. Fans of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will find the death chambers vaguely familiar, though surely more primitive. Jayne Anne Phillips, a native of West Virginia, first heard the ghastly story of Quiet Dell from her mother, who as a child of six had walked past the scene of the crimes, holding her own mother's hand.
Phillips brings deep familiarity to the ways of a rural small town, its people, its mores and its quiet desperation. Her writing has perfect pitch, with prose that often reads like poetry. The crime story may be ghastly and true, but Phillips gives us hope in the ways she sustains humanity and by having life emerge from the ashes of hell.
As I read the book, which is highly visual in its depictions, I imagined it as a film. It would seem a treasure for a fine screenwriter. Powers plotting; the harrowing abduction of the Eicher family; the prison cellar at his "murder farm" outside of Quiet Dell; the brutal slayings; their discovery by the town sheriff along with a fifth body; and the outpouring of town rage are high drama. Powers' trial, held in an Opera House (to accommodate the crowds) in the small city of Clarksburg, West Virginia, near the town of Quiet Dell, will rival scenes of Hannibal Lecter facing justice, and his sentence will slake a need for old testament righteousness. The moment when Duty, twice the survivor of families lost to disaster, is reconnected to murdered 9-year-old Annabel Eicher through her worn doll, Mrs. Pomeroy, will not leave a dry eye. The romantic scenes will breathe life amidst the deaths that anchor the tale.
Quiet Dell is a rare book. We readers are taken on a brilliant literary journey that passes through the netherworld but leaves us touched by grace.
Dr. Sederer's new book for families who have a member with a mental illness is The Family Guide to Mental Health Care (Foreword by Glenn Close).
The opinions expressed here are solely mine as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. I receive no support from any pharmaceutical or device company.