Embarrassingly, I had forgotten I read Jayne Ann Phillips’ Quiet Dell. It happened months ago, but I guess the trauma of reading something so terrible wiped the knowledge from my head until I was scouring my to-read shelf the other day and thought this sounded too familiar to not have been read already:
Chicago, 1931 – Widowed Asta Eicher scrambles to take care of herself and her three children in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. Lonely and in despair, her prayers are answered when rich stranger Harry Powers begins to court her. Yet mere weeks after they meet, the family is dead and Powers is nowhere to be found.
Intrepid reporter Emily Thornhill sets out to uncover what happened to the family as she becomes enthralled in their story, particularly that of the youngest child, Annabel, a precocious, artistic dreamer. Allied with a fellow journalist Eric Lindstrom and bankrolled by guilt-ridden banker William Malone, she tracks their trail to a small West Virginia town, where she is determined to discover the truth.
To be frank, this was one of the worst mysteries I’ve ever read. It wasn’t even mysterious! Literally nothing in the aforementioned description actually unfolds like that. Instead, it read like a bad episode of Law & Order:SVU, which I should’ve realized since it’s “based on a true story.”
Alternating between Asta and Emily’s stories, Phillips attempts to unravel the case, but Emily’s character serves as a distraction from Asta’s more sympathetic and chilling tale. I did love the insight into Asta’s mind, where we see her crumbling marriage and tough decision to remarry for her family’s sake. It was heartbreaking to read scenes of their tight-knit loving life before it all went downhill. I just didn’t understand why she didn’t accept the marriage proposal of her boarder though, who she knew and at least liked platonically, rather than running off with a pen pal (even if his letters charmed the pants off her).
But I soon got used to the idea of the women in this book making terrible life choices. For Emily, I was turned off by the ideal of a supposedly “strong career woman” throwing herself at a Rochester-esque married man (William) for no good reason, especially as they barely knew each other and he could’ve been the serial rapist/killer for all she knew. I mean, he is keeping an invalid wife locked up in his house. Additionally, I hated how people just spilled all their secrets to her, such as Eric blithely coming out of the closet in a far less tolerant era, considering Emily didn’t come off as the slightest bit trustworthy.
The writing and dialogue are weak as well. The resolution is particularly awful, with a WTF denouement involving a crime-solving dog named Duty and helpful ghosts of murdered children. Worst of all, Powers’ motivations left vague so we don’t even know how or why he went about committing these murders!
I can’t comprehend how a book that was supposed to be a historical mystery actually became a over-dramatized romance. If you’re into a true crime version of Nicholas Sparks, maybe this would be up your alley. If not, steer clear of the Quiet Dell.