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Sometimes a story from childhood stays with us. That was the case with writer Jayne Anne Phillips, whose mother used to tell her about the Quiet Dell murders that took place near Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1931. It was one of the first big sensational crime stories of the Depression. It involved a serial killer who corresponded with vulnerable widows he met through lonely hearts clubs and then lured them to their deaths.
Phillips returns to this story in her new novel, "Quiet Dell." NPR's Lynn Neary reports.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Phillips says her mother didn't talk a lot about the murders, which took place when she was a child. But whenever they drove near the area where the crime occurred, she would say, there's the road to Quiet Dell. Phillips says she had a strong connection to the sensory details of the story.
JAYNE ANNE PHILLIPS: Oh, the long dusty road, the heat of August, cars lined up as far as you could see, being very small and huge crowds of people, hearing the sound of them taking apart the murder garage for souvenirs. The whole experience was something that stayed with me.
NEARY: Two women were killed at Quiet Dell by the murderer Harry Powers, but so were the three children of one of the women, Asta Eicher, a widow from Chicago. Phillips opens the book with a vivid portrait of the family, imagining what their lives might have been like in the weeks before they were killed. Phillips says she felt a responsibility to the children.
PHILLIPS: The tragedy of their loss was somehow answered for me in the process of writing them. They became real to me and alive and saved, in a sense.
NEARY: Philips uses the character of Emily Thornhill to fill in the details of the investigation into the murders and the trial that follows. Emily, a young woman from Chicago, is one of hundreds of reporters who descend on Quiet Dell in the weeks after the murders. She is determined to find out as much as she can about the children and the man who killed them.
PHILLIPS: She wants justice for the family. She wants it known what happened to them. And in her own life, which is rather separate from her job, she remembers them. And, of course, the reader comes to see that having been involved in this case changes her life forever in ways she could not have expected or predicted.
NEARY: Perhaps the most vividly drawn character in the book is the youngest member of the Eicher family, Annabel, a fanciful child who lives in her imagination. Annabel bursts with energy and ideas. She remains a presence in the book even after her death. In this passage, she hovers over the site where she and her family were held captive before they were killed.
PHILLIPS: (Reading) Quiet Dell is beautiful, the trees at once gently riffling their great canopies, leading like stair steps up the sides of densely scented hills, ridge over ridge, as far as she can see. She looks back to find the others, but the garage building is a black hole. She hovers there and sees grasses and roots grow toward it at lightning speed, rushing and meeting and growing up, a fountain of green, for years are passing and the urgent land hums and flows, erasing the harrowing dark.
NEARY: When Annabel enters the picture, Phillips' writing becomes lyrical. The child's spirit is felt but not seen. Even so, Phillips says, Annabel is not a ghost.
PHILLIPS: No, I don't think of her as a ghost. She doesn't appear to anyone. She can turn in the breath of a thought. She can move in and out of time. She sees things that may be or things that will be. So it's more almost a physics problem, you know. Where does all this energy go, especially in cases of very sudden deaths?
NEARY: But it is Emily's story that dominates the narrative. Through her involvement in the case, her world expands. She finds new friends, new people to love, people who help her in her quest for justice for a family she never even knew.
PHILLIPS: We do know that in desperate circumstances, people are bound together so deeply. And in a sense, all these lives that are sort of pulled together by the tragedy are a testament to these children because everything going forward for all of these characters is marked by the goodness of these children and the fact that these characters protected and defended them when they could not do that for themselves.
NEARY: Asta Eicher and her children could not be saved but Phillips hopes that by remembering them, by imagining the lives they lived and the people who were their champions, she has played her own small part in shedding light on a dark corner of history. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.