Jayne Anne Phillips was first told about Harry Powers when she was a child. A murderous confidence trickster who preyed on wealthy, middle-aged women, his crimes transfixed America in the 1930s and haunted Phillips - like a bad dream from which it was not possible to wake.

In 1931, Asta Eicher, recently widowed and with three children, advertised for "correspondence leading to true friendship, fidelity, and matrimony" through the American Friendship Society. She was answered by Mr Powers in the po-faced, reverential courtship style that was his speciality.

He promised to transport her to West Virginia. And he did, turning up in his gleaming automobile. He drove her away and murdered her, later returning for her children and killing them in a place called, with deadly irony, Quiet Dell.

Out of the Eichers' silence and the clamorous press reports of the period, Jayne Anne Phillips, high-flying American short-story writer and novelist, has conjured an extraordinary book - the best she has written. What she has pulled off is not the fleshing out of a crime in which the facts provide the backbone, for although she includes news, courtroom quotes, black-and-white photographs - intriguing and mournful souvenirs - the facts are scraps compared to the real substance of the novel, which is imagination itself: truth in fiction.


Phillips begins by describing the Eicher family's Christmas in exquisite detail. It is full of vivid particulars: swans that are cream puff pastries with wings dipped in icing sugar, a tarnished silver ladle the Eicher boy, Hart, polishes to give his mother, reclaimed from a Catholic rummage sale (the family is on the verge of bankruptcy), a Christmas play that the youngest and most fanciful child, Annabel, is staging.

One reads with anguish, knowing one cannot twist fate's arm, flinching when a bunch of sinister red carnations arrives, with what is a retrospectively chilling Christmas message from Powers: "All cares cease! Joyful Noel!" The Palladian house is described as if it ought somehow to have stood by them. There is an implication that even the furniture's solidity - the carefully described ornate desk from Copenhagen - should have held them in place, prevented their vanishing. Only their dog is spared - although a departing Powers kicks its larynx so hard it can no longer bark.

Most of the characters in the book existed but the central character, Emily Thornhill - a spirited reporter - is invented. She is an independent American heroine who travels with a homosexual colleague, Eric Lindstrom, in tow. He lightens the narrative with wit and we get a keen insight into the difficulties of being gay in that era.

But it is with the Eichers' Chicago banker, William Malone, tormented by his failure to save the family, that Emily falls in love. Their affair is described with welcome intensity, sensuality and happiness: a bid for life.

Malone is married with a mentally infirm wife. He is a good man and a dashing rider who calls each of his successive horses Traveller in order not to further confuse his wife. A Catholic, he has no intention of dissolving his marriage but "a light had opened inside him without his realisation or permission", and he sees it cannot be dimmed.

Yet kindness, in this novel, tends to dominate, in affecting contrast to the unfathomable horror of the Powers story.

This is high-risk writing. Of all the children, Annabel is especially alive to us: a quirky, fully fledged little girl with a rich imaginative life and a rag doll she has named Mrs Pomeroy. And she continues posthumously as Phillips daringly chooses to keep her spirit alive and floating above us. In less skilful hands, this would be folly but it is typical of Phillips' fearlessness to try.

Annabel is a witnessing presence, no unlikely emotions are expressed, her thereness is moving. She flies above the train that carries her ashes away from West Virginia and, although the sadness you feel is partly caused by disbelief, there is a rightness about Annabel, most creative of children, getting the better of death, embodying the indestructibility of imagination.

Less successful is the invention of a neo-Dickensian character, 12-year-old Mason, an orphan pickpocket whose talents would not have shamed Fagin but who swiftly reforms to become Emily's archivist/adopted son. It is the effortlessness of their relationship that strains belief although it is in Emily's character to go - literally - beyond the call of "Duty" (the name of the Eichers' dog, which she also adopts).

The characterisation of Powers is masterly. Phillips gives him no more power than he deserves. We consider his beyond-the-pale abnormality, his inadequacy and the ordinariness of his appearance. In court, he looks "almost bored, like a clerk wandered into the wrong hall, forced to observe mundane proceedings". There is no sensationalism.

Emily suggests voyeuristic crowds are "on trial" - and by implication, the reader too.

Powers eludes explanation: "No one saw in September's shambling prisoner the man his victims experienced."

Although Phillips does not offer over-simplified comfort, her characters make the case for goodness and she convinces us that nightmare must not be defining: "Powers' world was not this world, though he had found himself within it."

Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (Cape $49.99)

- Observer

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