I always judge a book by its cover, or at least select a book by its cover, and the photo on the front of Quiet Dell drew me to it: a large group of sepia men, shirted and hatted, stand in a circle around an earthy hole they are clearly digging. A few haughty women hang back, hands on hips, and there is an air of discomfort, as though what is happening here is distasteful, unpleasant, disquieting.
A quick recce of the blurb placed the scene: bodies are being recovered, the bodies of a woman and her three children murdered by a man posing as a suitor. Although I had never heard of this, the Harry F. Powers case, (why are murder cases always remembered by the murderer's name, not the victims'?) I get the impression it is one of those that lives in the American consciousness, has become almost folklore, and in Quiet Dell, Jayne Anne Phillips brings the story and those it affected to life by fictionalising it.
Her research is awe inspiring; littered throughout the novel are actual newspaper reports and trial transcripts, photographs - the one on the cover is genuine, which perhaps explains its haunting quality - and witness testimony. This really works, and, certainly for the first two thirds of the book, reality and fiction are woven together beautifully. I even remained transfixed when one of the few entirely made-up characters, a female journalist, falls immediately in love with the banker who genuinely funded the investigation. It's utterly implausible, but I was already hooked and went with it, as one does with a book one is enjoying. However, Phillips does start to push me when this same journalist finds and adopts a street urchin while she is covering the trial. Furthermore, the way she speaks is ludicrous. Even in the thirties, no-one - except perhaps Celia Johnson - talked like this:
"I'm a reporter, here to write about the trial. You're not going to steal anymore because you're going to work for me...You will be my assistant and archivist. An archive is a collection of documents...I have a separate room in the hotel where you can sleep, and you can begin work tomorrow, that is, if you're willing to have a bath and a meal. Are you willing? ...I need to hear that you understand and that you accept my terms."
And that's just how she addresses eleven year old thieves!
For all that, I really did enjoy this book. It is bursting at the seams with atmosphere and intriguing characters - I would have loved more about Powers' odd wife and her strange sister, for example, and his father, who is sympathetic yet disturbing. These complex characters are the book's strength, and perhaps Phillips should have stayed with them rather than creating lead roles of her own.
The magnitude of Powers' serial murders will always remain unknown - he was convicted and executed for one death, but may have been responsible for literally hundreds. This book goes some way towards bringing to life the victims behind the police statistics. Much is made of the horror of their final days, bound and starved in cells below his garage, and there is no jot of glamour attached to Powers himself; he is presented as a pathetic and impotent creature.
For me, this is a winter book that I read at the wrong time of the year, and though flawed, is atmospheric and intriguing enough to warrant recommendation, if with reservation.