by Jayne Anne Phillips
*Starred Review* Phillips, the much-awarded and deeply admired writer of such fiction as Black Tickets (1979) and Machine Dreams (1984), now presents an astonishingly effective novel based on a true crime that took place in her native West Virginia in the early 1930s, material that has been brewing in her consciousness for years. The facts in the case are startling. Asta Eicher is a struggling widow in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge and the mother of three children. A man calling himself Cornelius Pierson blows into Asta's life, and Asta entrusts herself and her family into this virtual stranger's "care," moving to Quiet Dell, West Virginia. Soon the Eichers are discovered murdered. Emily Thornhill, a distinguished reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has been asked to investigate by the president of the Park Ridge First National Bank, who managed Asta's meager finances. Emily thus travels to Quiet Dell, one character remarking, "This story will be dark." Around a core of real people and events, Phillips has indeed drawn a sad, yet irresistible, story of the defenseless victims of a serial murderer who possesses the lack of conscience so often true to his kind. In fact, the truth of all of Phillips' characterizations is what lies behind this careful novel's compelling momentum.
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