By Jayne Anne Phillips
464 pages, $28
By Christina Milletti
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
Jayne Anne Phillips, the stylistically inventive writer of (among other books) “Black Tickets,” “Machine Dreams,” “Motherkind” and the National Book Award finalist “Lark & Termite,” surprises her readers with a historical crime novel in “Quiet Dell.” Phillips reflects that the story of 1930s serial killer Harry Powers – her “secret book” for years – touches on personal history: as a child, her mother often passed by Powers’ “murder farm” in Quiet Dell, W.Va., with Phillips’ grandmother, and the story of the women who Powers lured there became a tale told by mother to daughter in a lore of a much different, matriarchal nature. In her new novel, Phillips now passes a version of the story her mother told her to us.
“Quiet Dell” begins in the early days of the Great Depression in Park Ridge, Ill., an affluent suburb of Chicago not far from Oak Park, where Frank Lloyd Wright once lived and built several of his houses. There, the Eicher family – 45-year-old Asta Eicher and her three children: Grethe, 14, Hart, 12, and Annabel, 9 – is struggling, trying to rebound from the sudden death of Heinrich Eicher, killed in a tragic streetcar accident. Though the family appears more than financially stable, they are not “of means,” and the country’s downturn doesn’t bode well for a widowed woman circumscribed by social conventions.
On the brink of financial ruin, Asta Eicher rejects the advice of her mother-in-law and her banker, and refuses to sell her stately home. Instead, she takes to romance by mail with the American Fellowship Society – a match.com of the day – and begins corresponding with Cornelius Pierson, an ideal suitor, who offers reprieve from her personal debts in the form of marriage and a mansion.
“My business enterprises prevent me from making many social contacts,” he wrote in his ad (in which he claimed he was a civil engineer). “I am, therefore, unable to make the acquaintance of the right kind of women. As my properties are located through the Middle West, I believe I will settle there when married. Am an Elk and a Mason. Own a beautiful 10-room home, completely furnished. My wife would have her own car and plenty of spending money. Would have nothing to do but enjoy herself, but she must be strictly a one-man’s woman.”
The results of their exchange are devastatingly gruesome. Not long after Asta meets Cornelius in person, she and her children are dead.
Cornelius Pierson aka Harry Powers – the name by which he was known in Quiet Dell where the Eichers’ bodies were unearthed beneath a garage along with the corpse of 50-year-old divorcee Dorothy Lemke – were just two of the aliases used by former vacuum salesman Herman Drenth. Exploiting matrimonial services like the American Fellowship Society, Drenth specifically profiled desperate middle-aged women, whom he then robbed of their nest eggs in brazenly orchestrated romantic ruses. The two women he took to his home in Quiet Dell – a home he shared with his very real wife and her sister, operating a humble grocery store – believed they were en route to wedded bliss. Neither survived very long.
There is considerable speculation that Powers might have killed many more women. At the time of his capture, Powers was in correspondence with more than 200 brides-to-be, one of which was evidently a Western New Yorker. According to newspaper accounts of the time, Bessie Storrs of Olean was scheduled to “marry” Harry Powers the same day he was arrested.
As a novel, “Quiet Dell” seems to take its lead from Truman Capote’s groundbreaking 1966 “nonfiction novel” “In Cold Blood.” As a literary form based in fact, the “nonfiction novel” borrows conventions from fiction, describing the real people whose history it recounts in much the same way that novelists build characters with credibly persuasive attributes. The genres are not dissimilar. In fact it might be argued that their most significant distinction is rhetorical: the nonfiction novel, unlike the novel, simply purports to be true.
“Quiet Dell” pushes this distinction one step further: while the characters, the crime, and its investigation, even much of the compelling documented evidence that fills the book’s pages – photographs, quotes from witnesses, newspapers, letters, and books of the times – is very real, Phillips adds a patently fictional scaffolding to the case in the form of imaginary journalist, Emily Thornhill (an altogether modern, career-first woman) and her closeted gay, male colleague, Eric Lindstrom. (Phillips also identifies two other invented characters in her “Acknowledgements.”)
As the team investigates Drenth’s horrific crimes, a romanticized storyline develops: Emily, who adopts the Eichers’ real terrier “Duty” (who, as one article of the day wrote, lost his family “twice”: the first to a killer tornado, the second to Drenth’s crime), begins an affair with William Malone – the Eichers’ real banker. William, who is married to a woman with dementia, and Emily establish a modern, if imperfect, love “on the side” that suits their complicated lives and professions.
Eric Lindstrom also finds love with a tangential victim of Drenth’s crime – the real Charles O’Boyle, a boarder in Asta’s home who alerted the police that the Eicher family was missing. In other words, the novel not only enmeshes fact and fiction in provocative ways, but the fictional story that Phillips showcases is as romantic as the factual story of Drenth’s crimes is macabre.
This paradox sits at the very heart of the novel. Emily’s and Eric’s love stories stand out rather distinctly in contrast to the grisly end of Drenth’s matrimonial ploys – so distinctly it’s hard to imagine that Phillips’ rose-tinted, imaginary portraits aren’t conveying a patent message about marital fantasies (think “Prince Charming”) that continue to be culturally fostered, particularly for women.
Herman Drenth used and abused those fantasies. He presented himself to his middle-aged brides and their families as a protector prepared to rescue them from loneliness, shame and financial distress. In fact, his classified ad might be read as a checklist of social conventions conveniently allayed in advance.
By contrast, Emily Thornhill’s unconventional relationships stand out in stark juxtaposition to the customary lifestyle that Asta Eicher and Dorothy Lemke both sought and which doomed them. Phillips’ point, in this respect, is more than compelling, but given the lyrical writing that sweeps through the book – particularly the oracular voice of Annabel Eicher, whose disembodied presence haunts the investigation – a more nuanced intervention in Thornhill’s decidedly intricate social arrangement might have made this impression more forceful.
“Quiet Dell” is a striking novel for all these complexities, not least because the provocative tapestry of fact and fiction that Phillips presents arises from both ends of the spectrum. While Phillips imposes a fictional framework on a devastatingly tragic history – whose details will haunt readers long after they put the book down – what is impossible to account for are the many oddly fictional-sounding elements that anchor the Eichers’ very real story.
After all: Herman Drenth’s lawyer was named J. Ed Law. The policeman who investigated the grisly crime was named Sheriff Grimm. And “Herman” Drenth’s real given name in the language of his Dutch immigrant parents?
“Herman” translates as “Harm.”
Christina Milletti is a professor of English at the University at Buffalo.