In one of the first nationally sensationalized crimes in America, conman Harry Powers sought out vulnerable widows through matrimonial agencies, courted them and then lured them to their deaths, supposedly for financial gain, though evidence suggests money was not the issue. After murdering Asta Eicher and her three children in 1931, he was caught, put on trial and executed. The lurid details of the case preoccupied Depression-era newspapers for months.
Author Jayne Anne Phillips grew up hearing about this crime, which took place in her home state of West Virginia, and has been haunted by the story for decades. In Quiet Dell, Phillips boldly imagines the last year of the life of the Eicher family, especially the fanciful youngest daughter, Annabel, whose creativity and imagination may have provided the spark that Phillips needed to deal with such grim material. The novel begins the Christmas before the crime: The Eicher children have just lost their beloved grandmother, and the widowed Asta is making plans to meet “Cornelius Pierson,” the mysterious man who has been courting her by mail. Cornelius—one of Powers’ aliases—appears chivalrous and elegant, promising to marry her, care for her children and provide a fresh start in West Virginia. Of course, the story ends quite differently.
To more fully explore the crime, Phillips has created a team of fictional reporters, Emily Thornhill and Eric Lindstrom, who travel from the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge to West Virginia and back again in their attempt to see justice done. Emily is also drawn romantically to Park Ridge banker William Malone, who was well acquainted with the Eichers. His guilt over not doing more to help the grieving Asta motivates him to fund the investigation, and his relationship with Emily, passionately and beautifully told, provides balance to the violence of the crime.
Archival records such as court transcripts, letters, photographs and period newspaper articles provide a framework for Quiet Dell, but it’s Phillips’ masterful imagination and sense of empathy that brings an emotional weight and dignity to a story that transcends the genre of true crime.