The competition for crime of the century is steep, but for pure ghoulishness, Harry Powers is a cut above the rest.

As America careened into the Great Depression, a Dutch immigrant in West Virginia began advertising for companionship in lonely hearts columns around the country. The fact that Powers had recently married didn’t slow him down. From the hundreds of women who wrote to him, he selected at least two to fleece and butcher. Among his victims was a single mother and her three children, who perished in a torture chamber under his garage. Powers — dubbed “Bluebeard” by the breathless newspapers of the day — was tried in an opera house, which only emphasized the proceedings’ theatricality. He was convicted and hanged in 1932.

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.

”Quiet Dell” by Jayne Anne Phillips. (Scribner)

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.

Into this complicated household slithers Powers, Anna’s secret pen pal. He “seems a gentleman,” she thinks, “and takes such time and care. An ardent and faithful correspondent, he writes two letters for every one of hers.” But theirs is a deadly confluence of deceptions: Despite her apparent prosperity, Anna actually has no money. And despite his professions of affection, Powers is planning a gruesome consummation.

You might assume that knowing the fate of Anna and her family would sap the suspense, but Phillips portrays these children so intimately that their impending demise is all the more terrifying. And the novel includes gorgeous shifts into surrealism that suggest the youngest daughter’s spiritual visions — a risky stylistic touch that occurs infrequently enough to feel surprising and disorienting each time it occurs.

Phillips also attends to the social and economic exigencies that would encourage a single mother to suspend her skepticism for the promise of a good husband. The comparison to today’s risky online dating market is obvious, but what’s more interesting is the way the press used the Powers murders as an opportunity to shame middle-aged women for pursuing matrimonial happiness. “Woe to the buxom woman over forty who imagined sincere interest in her exhausted charms,” Phillips writes. Better to sit patiently at home waiting for a natural death than to risk courting it out in the world.

Unfortunately, the second, much longer section of “Quiet Dell” is nowhere near as successful. Built around the investigation and trial, it focuses on a fictional character named Emily Thornhill, a plucky reporter for the Chicago Tribune. While showing us how Emily becomes emotionally invested in the story of the dead Eichers, Phillips conveys the special challenges and advantages of a “working girl” charged with providing “the woman’s angle on hard news.”

The novel captures the sepia tone of the times, with its genteel public manners and its too-close relationship between press and police, but a clammy sense of melodrama spoils the very real emotions of this tragedy. Just as she begins reporting on the murders, Emily and the president of Anna Eicher’s local bank spark up a romance quicker than you could get change for a dollar. And even if you can buy their passion, there’s no way to resist snickering at their hyperventilating dialogue: “I will never compromise your reputation,” he tells the young reporter, “but I must have you, and know I can have you. . . . I think of you in every breath.” All I ever got from my bank was a pocket calendar.

This problem is even more pronounced when it comes to Emily’s partner from the Chicago Tribune, a homosexual photographer who seems debonair except when he sounds like a character from “Game of Thrones”: “I will protect you, always, just as you protect me,” he tells her. “As counsel or help, no matter the need, I am sworn to you.” That he and Emily speak of his sexual orientation with thoroughly post-Stonewall enlightenment only adds to the weird anachronisms of their relationship. (It doesn’t help that Emily’s gay photographer and Anna’s gay suitor eventually pair up for a “Glee”-worthy finale.) And the adorable pick-pocket who scurries in from a Charles Dickens novel to win Emily’s heart — well, I’m a little verklempt.

The publisher wants to position “Quiet Dell” as a successor to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” but it never generates such heat. Maybe it’s too burdened by the procedural details of the trial. Or maybe this irreducibly strange novel doesn’t know what it wants to be: a work of true crime, a romance, a period melodrama, a ghost story? Phillips has successfully married disparate styles before, but here the historical record looks pressed into a costume that doesn’t fit.

Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.


By Jayne Anne Phillips

Scribner. 460 pp. $28.00