Review: ‘Decent People’ uncovers disturbing secrets in small North Carolina town
“DECENT PEOPLE” by De’Shawn Charles Winslow (Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $28).
Murder mysteries traditionally focus on a single question: who did it? The best of the genre – like De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s new novel “Decent People” – raise more philosophical questions. What is the value of human life? What kind of world do we live in? Is justice possible? In the case of West Mills, North Carolina, the setting of Winslow’s story, the more pressing question is both practical and existential: should I stay or should I go?
In the first chapter of “Decent People”, Josephine Wright, who left West Mills as a child, returns to 1976 after a long career in New York. Jo plans to marry her young love, Olympus “Lymp” Seymore, and move into a cottage on the west side of a canal that separates the black community from the all-white east. Her vision of serene and pleasant days is blurred when she learns that the Harmon siblings – Marian, Marva and Lazarus, friends from Jo’s youth – have been shot in their home. The Harmons returned to West Mills a decade earlier, after many years in the North, to establish Friendly Pediatrics, with Marian as doctor, Marva as nurse, and Laz as factotum. Worse still, police have identified Lymp, the Harmons’ half-brother, as the prime suspect. It’s enough to make Jo question her decision to leave New York.
Not content with turning the investigation over to the police, who are notoriously ineffective at solving crimes against black citizens, Jo begins to interview witnesses and identify suspects. She wants to clear Lymp’s name – and make sure of his innocence – before making a full commitment to him or the town. She has suffered from two unsatisfying, childless marriages and just wants to find some peace. West Mills may not be the pastoral idyll it dreams of.
Jo’s investigation reveals that clouds of suspicion hung over the Harmon siblings years before they were murdered. They accumulate enemies; rumors circulate of shady business at the doctor’s office and at their family home, the fanciest residence on the West Side (an inheritance from their father). Patients suspect Marian of insurance fraud, and the community wonders why so many adults walk into a pediatric clinic—could the Harmons be in the illicit drug business, as the police believe?
Marion’s receptionist, Angela Glasper, sums up the city’s judgment. “Dr. Harmon was rude. Had no bedside manners…she thought she was better than the rest of us on the West Side,” Angela says. “And Lord, she loved money. More than she loved it. She was greedy. Just as greedy as all the outings.” Disgusting, Jo thinks, but is that enough to motivate anyone to kill her and her siblings?
Bloomsbury / “Decent People”
Laz, the youngest of the Harmons, exhibits another wrinkle that can complicate crime. Several characters question his sexuality. Angela says flatly, “It didn’t seem to me that he was interested in women.” Given the widespread homophobia in 1970s North Carolina, Jo knows that Laz could have been a target of violence. Her own brother, a homosexual living with her in New York, does not dare join Jo in her reverse migration to the south.
The risks of homosexuality appear in the novel’s most poignant sequence when, just weeks before the murders, a West Mills mother, Eunice Loving, takes her 14-year-old son to Dr. Harmon “to have the homosexual removed”. . What ensues is conversion therapy in its most primitive form, violence and shame employed to turn a “chicken” into a “man”.
Eunice, knowing that she has lost her son’s trust, turns her anger on Marian and her siblings. “People always said you were all weird,” Eunice shouts at Marva and Laz. “But it’s strange that she has nothing on her! She’s pure evil!” Eunice joins a growing list of characters with vendettas against the Harmons.
Although the story begins and ends with Jo, Winslow rotates the narrative between half a dozen characters. This technique allows him to extend the world-building that began in “In West Mills” (2019), his first novel. Jo isn’t the only one to escape this small town only to be sucked into its dense orbit.
Winslow, who grew up in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and has lived in New York and Atlanta, offers an ambivalent portrait of this southern city. Amid the Civil Rights Movement and other cultural revolutions, West Mills remains isolated and hostile to interracial romance. As one character puts it, “Times haven’t changed. Not that much.”
Despite the darkness of the subject, Winslow has a light touch, moving readers quickly through the novel’s kaleidoscopic events. He spices up the story with period details, pertinent references to “McMillan & Wife” and Patty Hearst that remind us that we are visiting a lost world. Winslow’s novel is melodrama – seedy crimes and racial violence, family secrets and betrayals, romantic rivalries and hopeless love affairs – but resolves into an essentially domestic question: where can we find a home?
Appearance of the author
De’Shawn Charles Winslow will perform at the SouthWord Literary Festival in Chattanooga on April 14-15. For more information, visit solitchat.org.
For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.