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Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips, book review: A clever twist on the true-crime genre

True crime is one of the most resolutely unlikeable of genres: lurid and garish where it could be analytic and sympathetic, and usually more interested in the psychology of the killer than the life of the victim. No surprise when its originating model is Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which detailed the murder of a family of Kansas farmers by a pair of paroled ex-convicts, but couldn't escape the author's fascination with the killers.

There are elements of true crime to Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel, Quiet Dell. It is based on the story of another iconic crime of the American Mid-West – but there is far more to it than that, and above all the desire to take back the story from the killer and return it to the killed.

The case it treats is that of Harry Powers, "America's first mass slayer", who befriended women through lonely hearts columns in order to rob and sometimes kill them. The sad, inadequate Powers is strangely peripheral to Phillips' story, though. Instead she focuses on the Eicher family, widowed Asta and her three children, Grethe, Annabel and Hart, whose bodies were discovered on the "Murder farm" that gives the book its title, and then on Emily Thornhill, a journalist of Phillips' invention, who covers the trial of Powers in Clarksburg, West Virginia, in 1931.

There is clearly a lot of research in the book, but also a huge imaginative response to that research. Phillips is intent on paying literary respect to the Eichers, by bringing them to life on the page as best she can. This work is wonderfully done: Annabel, especially, is a winning presence: "nine years old, precocious, and so preoccupied with fairies and spirits and pronouncements", and given to writing Christmas plays for her siblings, and the family dog, Duty, to perform.

The Eicher children are so vividly drawn, in fact, that it is a shock to turn the page and find them staring out of archive photos, fuzzy and blank-faced and unknowable. These, and extracts from letters and court transcripts give the book the grounding it needs, while it races along, tackling the narrative of the police investigation through Thornhill, who is every inch the resourceful, progressive journalist-hero of films like The Front Page. She doesn't bat an eyelid at her colleague Eric's homosexuality, and efficiently builds into her life a clandestine affair with the head of a Chicago bank, who knew the Eichers, and helps fund her investigation.

It is unfortunate, then, that Phillips pushes at the reader's sensibilities a few times too many. Does Thornhill really need to save a Clarksburg urchin by employing him as her assistant? Does she really need to "see" Annabel's lost doll in Powers' car, a vital piece of evidence? Do we need Annabel's spirit hovering through the novel, looking down on her own death, and the fate of her killer, like Susie in The Lovely Bones? No, no, and no – but get beyond your groans and gritted teeth, and this is still a powerful and moving novel.

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