Jane Anne Phillips' novel Quiet Dell is inspired by true events: the 1931 murder of a West Virginia family by a con man who targeted widows. The acclaimed author of Machine Dreams first heard about the grisly crimes from her mother, who grew up near Quiet Dell. In this fictionalized account, Phillips hauntingly imagines the victims' hopes, dreams, and terror.
The story opens on Christmas Eve, at the Illinois home of Asta Eicher and her three children. The holiday cheer masks recent tragedy; the Eicher family is "a charmed and beautiful village on which dark stars fell," still reeling from the death of patriarch Heinrich—and in danger of losing their house as well.
Desperate, Asta is seduced by Cornelius Pierson, an apparently wealthy man who has courted her through correspondence. She leaves to marry him and a week later, he returns alone to take the children to his West Virginia farm, Quiet Dell. The three are later found buried together near a creek, their mother in a ditch ten feet away.
Enter Emily Thornhill, a reporter covering the case for the Chicago Tribune. As Emily hunts for clues, she discovers the difficulty of separating her emotions from her work.
Phillips blends fact and fiction in a darkly poetic way: The result is an absorbing novel that leaves us rooting for the heroine Emily becomes—and mourning the lives the Eichers never got to enjoy.