03/13/2014 09:17 am ET Updated May 13, 2014

Letters and Murder in a Quiet Dell

Obsessed with letters, I was eager -- and yet loathe -- to read Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips. The novel is based on the true story of Harry Powers, a man who seduced middle-aged women through letters and then killed them. He found his lady loves through the lonely hearts correspondence clubs that were popular in the early 1900s. In the love notes he wrote to his victims, he claimed to be both wealthy and decent, a single man looking to settle down and start a family, and lacking only the proper woman at his side. The women became convinced of his love, gathered their life savings and possessions, and took off with him, never to be seen again. Powers' story illustrates the power of letters, and yet the creepiness of how such power was abused is chilling; I wondered how Phillips would be able to tell the story in a way that fully explored the women's reliance on the written word and Powers' terrible betrayal of their trust.

Phillips met both these challenges, and more. Quiet Dell is one of the best books I've read in a long time, containing every necessary element for a great book: compelling and fully-developed characters, resonant and alive atmosphere, complex and provoking plot, satisfying resolution, and absolutely beautiful writing. The layers of the story -- the last victim and her family, their family traditions and rituals, the family friend with his own complicated desires, the banker unaware of problems, the reporter seizing on a story, the photographer eager for more, and the horror that was Powers -- accumulate in vivid scenes, expanding into a fully-realized world of good and bad, hope and despair, past and present, hell and even heaven itself. The characters latched on to me and took hold, as surely as if my hand was being held; I became intimately connected, especially to the children, and when trouble comes, I shook with fear and helplessness -- and I became nervous with desire for revenge, and hungry for redemption.

In telling the story of the murders that finally brought Powers to the attention of the police, Phillips devotes less time on revenge - she knows there is little solace in its fulfillment - but goes heavy and deep with the redemption, and for this I am grateful. She offers moving and persuasive proof that the only answer to evil is goodness. Goodness in the form of love and connection, and goodness in the form of survival. The warming of another heart, the resilience of joined company, and the promise of another, better day: "The stream meanders, shines with snowmelt; the water, shaken in ripples, warms suddenly, as though some seismic shift deep in the earth moves time forward. The air breathes and the trees stir, tossing their limbs, opening every bud and leaf."

Letters are bringers of hope and joy, but of course can also bring pain, fear, and disillusion. Think of Dear John letters, and letters announcing a death, and ransom letters, letters bragging of terrible acts, letters promising revenge. Phillips shows us the dark side of letters, and of life, but then brings us back from despair to a place of promise. A place where evil can be met with goodness, a place where renewal of faith is possible, a place in a Quiet Dell.