Novelist Explains Weaving Fact, Fiction in ‘Quiet Dell’
The West Virginia murders that inspired Jayne Anne Phillips’ novel, “Quiet Dell,” became “an other-worldy event in that place at that time,” the author said.
Phillips, a native of Buckhannon and author of fifth novels, gave the keynote presentation Nov. 12 to close the Upper Ohio Valley Festival of Books. Speaking at the Ohio County Public Library, she explained how she wove fact and fiction into “Quiet Dell,” set in the real Quiet Dell, W.Va., near her hometown.
The infamous 1931 murders committed by con man Harry Powers “became a mythical crime here,” she remarked. The cover illustration for Phillips’ book is an old photograph that shows throngs gathered at the crime scene, where four soundproof basement cells were discovered in a garage.
Phillips said her mother recalled, at age 6, holding her own mother’s hand as they walked along a dirt road to the site where the “murder garage” was being taken apart, piece by piece, by souvenir-seeking crowds. Many years later, a family friend gave Phillips a souvenir — identified as a “piece of soundproof board used by Harry Powers” — that he found in an antique dresser in Rock Cave, W.Va.
“Newspapers were full of the story for months,” the author said, adding, “It was one of the first nationally covered crimes, and it was really used as a distraction during the Depression.”
Media coverage was spun as a warning to women and a lesson to “not step outside their domestic spheres,” she said.
Powers, a con artist who used various aliases, sought women through matrimonial agencies. “He wrote extremely well-composed letters,” Phillips said, adding that he was convincing in person and “no woman he met ever sounded the alarm.”
The stage of an opera house in Clarksburg was used for Powers’ three-day trial, which was attended by 1,200 spectators and reporters from across the nation, she said. Powers was convicted of first-degree murder and was hanged at the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville on March 18, 1932.
The novel focuses on four of his victims: widow Asta Eicher and her three children from Park Ridge, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Phillips said she hoped to create a sense of foreboding and beauty “to make the children real again.”
For the book festival, Phillips read several passages from “Quiet Dell,” beginning with an opening scene at the Eicher home on Christmas Eve 1930, one of several sections written from the perspective of 9-year-old Annabel Eicher. The novelist also read one of the few sections told from Powers’ perspective and hinting at his background. Later, the narrative shifted to Emily Thornhill, a Chicago Tribune reporter who traveled to Quiet Dell to cover the case.
While the novel contains fictional elements and characters, the book completely follows the development of the crime, Phillips said. Actual news accounts are interspersed between chapters.
“My intent was not really to portray Powers,” she said. “My real interest was in the children, in Annabel.”
The book is dedicated to Annabel Eicher. As a novelist, Phillips said, “You have to love all of your characters, in a strange way.”
She had an opportunity to visit the Eichers’ old house, which remains almost the same. “The playhouse is still there with the mural their mother painted. The barn is still there,” she related. The owners, who bought the Park Ridge house five years after the Eichers were killed in West Virginia, told Phillips, “This is where they were happy.”