Direct memories of that sensational trial have evaporated, but the Powers case inspired a critically acclaimed novel by Davis Grubb called “The Night of the Hunter” and a classic film version by Charles Laughton, starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.
Now, after thinking about this crime for decades, Jayne Anne Phillips offers her own treatment of the murders, which took place not far from her home town in West Virginia. While Grubb and the movie based on his book took considerable liberties with the details, Phillips notes that in her novel, the victims’ “letters, the trial transcript, and various excerpted newspaper articles are quoted exactly from original documents.” Chapters open with black and white photographs of the pudgy killer, his victims and their many curious onlookers. The characters’ names would seem like corny allegories if they weren’t, in fact, true: Sheriff Grimm, Defense Attorney Law, Judge Southern and, not least, a murderer whose real name was Harm.
But despite its reliance on historical detail, “Quiet Dell” is a thoroughly re-imagined story. As in her previous novel, “Lark and Termite,” which dramatized the No Gun Ri massacre during the Korean War, Phillips has invented thoughts and dialogue for historical figures, built the story around several fictional characters and introduced a mystical element that will enchant some readers and annoy others.
To begin with, Phillips subsumes the inherent thriller elements of this multiple-murder case to her own emotional design. The novel’s first quarter is an atmospheric domestic drama: 45-year-old Anna Eicher and her three young children of Park Ridge, Ill., are teetering on the precipice of poverty in 1930. Anna’s husband, a silversmith, was killed several years before by a streetcar. “The Eichers were a charmed and beautiful village on which dark stars fell,” the narrator writes. “Misfortune was common, of course, but the family persevered with such well-bred patience, and made of pretense a brave and moral art.”
Phillips knows how to choreograph the incongruent desires and tones that sweep through a home, even an apparently happy one. This engrossing first section moves fluidly back and forth in time, filling in nasty details about Anna’s marriage to her sexually aggressive husband (who may have met that streetcar on purpose). Anna’s mother-in-law is a sweet old lady who counsels the benefits of adultery. Anna’s youngest daughter is a precocious artist with a prescient attraction to the afterlife. Anna’s best friend is gay, and willing to rescue the family by marrying her. “A man was not one thing,” he thinks as he contemplates what his proposal will cost him, and it’s a good reminder that a novel is not one thing, either.