Writer Jayne Anne Phillips releases new book based on real-life murder

Photo by Joey Hill

Joey Hill

As part of its “Writers at Work” series, the Kansas City Public Library hosted bestselling author Jayne Anne Phillips as she presented her latest work, “Quiet Dell.”

“Quiet Dell” tells the true story of Chicago journalist Emily Thornhill as she investigates the tragic deaths of widowed Asta Eicher and her children in 1931. Eicher had moved to West Virginia, only three weeks before her death, to marry Harry Powers, an affluent man who promised Eicher care for both her and her children. Powers sent Eicher letters of increasing sensual advance through a matrimonial agency, and they convinced Eicher to relocate her family and inevitably their fate.

Phillips was interviewed by UMKC professor Whitney Terrell in the seminar room of the Kansas City Public Library. The walls were a dark mahogany, and the walls opposite the stage were decorated with paintings depicting civil war battles. It was between these walls that Terrell and Phillips discussed the story and her own thoughts on the plots of the various characters.

When discussing the extremely despicable acts that drive the plot, Terrell asked about the characters’ reactions to the advances in the investigation, as well as the ways they come to terms with what they discover.

“There is this senselessness to what Powers does,” Phillips said. “Emily and Eric discuss it in length. The book is a love story, and in a lot of ways it’s a story about a group of people who didn’t know one another who are instantly pulled together and develop those very intense bonds that people do around a tragedy. And they intervene in finding justice for the family, because that’s really all that counted for them, but in that journey they become a kind of non-traditional family.”

The story is very much about the group of amateur investigators as they delve deeper into the mystery in search of justice for the Eicher family – a justice that Phillips says wasn’t offered to the family when they were alive.

“Their [Emily and Eric’s] lives are so changed by having participated and intervened, by becoming in a sense the family that this family didn’t have to stand up for them,” she said.

Terrell then asked about the characters’ vulnerability and how Phillips displays their responses to the senseless acts and their reactions to coming to know each other so well.

“This case is so dark that it’s a kind of relief against which they come to know each other rather quickly and very deeply,” Phillips said.

She also emphasized the impact made by viewing the story through a female character’s point of view.
“The women writing into matrimonial agencies didn’t know who they were writing to at all and Powers’ letters were very skilled manipulations,” she said. “He knew he had certain code words, certain code phrases that he used to advance a response to a particular level.”

Many of the letters were quoted from the book as they were published in the newspaper after Powers’ capture.

The author was also asked why certain people at that time in history may have been vulnerable to Powers.

“Remember that in the 1930s life expectancy was probably about 50 to 55. Women who had to raise their children, or had never had children or were living alone, either in some apartment or on some farm,” Phillips said. “If they went voluntarily out of state, took all the money out of their bank account and set off never to be seen again, no one was going to question this except their own family. In 1931 if you drove two states away you could be a different person. There was no tracking of anyone.”

During a Q&A session with the audience, Phillips explained how she’s able to write about such horrible and dark events.

“Well I think there are dark moments and dark elements to this story, but I’ve found it to be a very hopeful book,” she said.

The audience member who had asked the question was taken aback.

“The terrible thing about a victim is that victim to be forgotten,” Phillips continued. “Victims vanish, and what I wanted to do in this book was not a book about the murder. That’s not the core of the book, that’s not the fascination of the book.”

A cell phone went off in the audience and Phillips pointed in the direction of the noise.

“That’s God agreeing with me,” Phillips said.