Quiet Dell is a novel based on a series of actual murders committed in the 1930s by a man calling himself Harry Powers. He does this by preying on widows who are writing to him via the Lonely Hearts Club, looking for someone to talk to and a bit of companionship. In the blurb at the beginning Jayne Anne Phillips states that in her youth she was driven by the scene of the murders and the impression that left has haunted her, eventually compelling her to write this novel.
Not being familiar with the work of Jayne Anne Phillips, (this is the first novel by the author that I have read) I was not sure what to expect. The hook for me, then, was that the basis of this book was a real crime. Since reading In Cold Blood in high school, I have been fascinated by real crime stories, whether they be fictional representations or non-fiction accounts. In the case of Quiet Dell, the first few chapters definitely lived up to my expectations. This section of the book depicts the story of Ana Eicher, a widow with three children, who has no skills and no way to make a living now that her husband has died. The author describes the current life of Ana and her children with heart-breaking clarity and emotion. I was definitely immersed in their story quickly.
In fact, I would give a 4 star rating to the beginning of the book, all the way to the part where the murders are discovered. At this point, the author introduces her first fictional characters, a female journalist by the name of Emily Thornhill and a photographer by the name of Eric Lindstrom, who are covering the story for the Chicago Tribune. This is where the books falls apart for me. It's not that Emily and Eric are not solid characters. I actually liked the way that the author used Emily's compulsion to find out the truth about Harry Powers as a catalyst to take the reader through the investigation of his life. It is Emily's romantic involvement with banker William O'Malley that I felt was not only unnecessary to the story, but actually a distraction from the investigation into the murders that should have made up the rest of the book. For me this error was compounded by two other items that author chose to include in the latter part of the book. These were the use of the youngest Eicher child, Anabelle, as a "supernatural" character (Think Susie in The Lovely Bones), and the inclusion of the "orphan" story. Neither of these devices did anything to enhance the basic story line, in my opinion.
To sum it up, I copy a quote that I saw on Amazon which is purported to be from People Magazine. It says, "Think In Cold Blood meets The Lovely Bones, but sexier." To me, that sums it up pretty well. Unfortunately, I would have liked a bit more of the In Cold Blood part and a lot less of the The Lovely Bones and sexy parts.
As I said above, I am not familiar with Jayne Anne Phillips other work, but I have heard that this is not her usual fare. For that reason, and the fact that parts of this book were very well written, I plan to try one of the author's other books in the future.
I would like to that Scribner and Netgalley for the opportunity to read this book in exchange for my review.