Like Joyce Carol Oates, another New Jersey literary celebrity, Jayne Anne Phillips, director of the master of fine arts program at Rutgers-Newark, does not shy away from the bleaker side of human nature. Her 2009 novel Lark and Termite, nominated for a National Book Award, was a dark but poetic coming-of-age story about a pair of West Virginia siblings and their broken family. Her new novel, Quiet Dell (Scribner), out this month, stops short of following Oates into noirish territory, but murder lurks at its heart.
In the early 1930s, a lonely, widowed mother of three from Chicago begins corresponding with a quixotic man who lures her to West Virginia with the promise of marriage and a new life; instead, he brutally murders the family. Emily Thornhill is the Chicago journalist who covers the case, entangling herself emotionally in the lives that could have been. Helping secure the conviction of the widow’s sociopathic suitor propels Emily and fortifies her.
The story is based on a crime committed more than 80 years ago in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. Phillips, who grew up nearby, was told of the incident by her mother, who learned of it at age 6 from her own mother.
Comparisons to Truman Capote’s 1966 classic In Cold Blood, are likely, though Phillips steers clear of puzzling out the psychopathology behind the brutality. The stamp of Jane Sebold’s haunting 2002 novel The Lovely Bones is evident; several passages are told from the point of view of the murdered Annabel, the widow’s most fanciful child.
With its finely drawn characters, Quiet Dell also resonates with Phillips’s past fiction. In the new novel, she captivatingly welds an act of violence to a pair of signature themes: deep feelings and dashed dreams.