Phillips (Lark and Termite, 2009) fuses the established facts surrounding the 1931 trial of serial killer Harry Powers with her imagined version of the victims’ inner lives and the fictional lives of a handful of characters connected by the crimes.
Financially strapped since her husband’s death, Asta Eicher lives with her three children in a large suburban Chicago house, where she takes in boarders. Devoted to her and the children, former boarder Charles O’Boyle, who has prospered in his business, proposes to Asta while celebrating a joyful Christmas with the family in 1930. Aware he is gay, she turns him down. Instead, she assumes she will solve her problems by marrying Cornelius Pierson, with whom she’s secretly begun corresponding through the American Friendship Society (think snail-mail Match.com). In July 1931, Asta leaves her children with a babysitter while she travels with Cornelius to set up the family’s new home. A week later, Cornelius returns alone to fetch the kids. Phillips brings the Eichers to vivid life—Asta’s guilt, 14-year-old Grethe’s innocence, 12-year-old Hart’s protectiveness, 9-year-old Annabel’s spirit—and wisely eschews the grisly details of their deaths. Months later, the police discover the Eichers’ remains in the basement of a garage belonging to Harry Powers in Quiet Dell, W.V. Charged with the Eichers’ murders, Powers is indicted for the murder of Dorothy Lemke, whose body has also been discovered in the garage, because the circumstantial evidence in her case is stronger. The snippets of actual court testimony and reportage included are harrowing. While digging up dirt on Powers, (fictional) Chicago Tribune reporter Emily Thornhill falls deeply in love with Asta’s (real-life) banker. She also takes in an orphaned street urchin. So in the aftermath of one family’s destruction, Emily creates a new if unconventional “family” of people she loves.
Phillips’ prose is as haunting as the questions she raises about the natures of sin, evil and grace.