‘Decent People’ grapples with a small Southern town’s changing mores

De’Shawn Charles Winlow returns to West Mills for ‘70s era tale.

Interconnected family secrets, a whodunit murder mystery and the unshakable remnants of bigotry spin North Carolina author De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s second novel “Decent People” into an introspective and big-hearted examination of small-town Southern life. Returning to the setting of his 2019 debut “In West Mills,” Winslow’s standalone work “Decent People” picks up in 1976 when West Mills’ first Black doctor is murdered, along with her two siblings, and follows three women who possess vastly different interests in the case.

Josephine “Jo” Wright left West Mills as a girl. Now retired, she’s returning to marry her old schoolmate Olympus “Lymp” Seymore. Jo is shocked when Lymp is named a suspect in the cold-blooded murders of his three half-siblings and sets out on a mission to clear her fiancé's name.

She discovers that Eunice Manning Loving, a character Winslow resurrects from “In West Mills,” had an altercation with Dr. Marian Harmon shortly before her death. Further investigation reveals that Savannah Temple Russet, a white widow shunned by her family for her interracial marriage, also threatened one of the dead siblings. And her father who owns property the doctor was leasing had words with her as well.

Neither Eunice, Savannah or her father were dragged down to the police station and held for questioning, however. Nor are they receiving anonymous threats from the community as is Lymp, despite having been exculpated by the police. Jo is furious in the face of this inequity.

Winslow uses Jo’s character, who is simultaneously familiar with and new to the cultural constraints of West Mills, to provide an outsider’s perspective into the tired confines of small-town life.

As Jo’s efforts to pinpoint the murderer reveals a complex web of interrelationships between the citizens of West Mills, Winslow’s characters struggle through a multitude of issues that are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s.

Eunice is a hard character to spend time with after she takes her son La’Roy to Dr. Harmon to “have the gay removed.” Especially after Dr. Harmon’s solution is to solicit Savannah’s teenage sons to beat La’Roy straight. But Winslow uses Eunice’s character arc to portray how a person can evolve beyond archaic thinking and offer acceptance instead of intolerance.

Winslow makes a compelling statement on the prevalence of homophobic microaggressions utilizing Jo’s outsider point of view. She remembers her brother being ostracized for his queerness when they lived in West Mills as children but is still unprepared for the barrage of slurs and snickers that arise in casual conversations. While the experience is consistently jarring, what she finds most disturbing is that nobody else considers these degrading comments out of place.

West Mills is a town that has allowed people like Dr. Harmon, an unsparing woman who “was always draped in rigid stoicism,” to thrive. She truly believes Savannah’s sons can scare La’Roy into behaving straight. Fortunately, the boys aren’t the bullies they once were and help La’Roy escape.

La’Roy’s outcome demonstrates how Winslow’s narrative is driven far more by character than plot. By allowing La’Roy to remain physically unharmed, the author keeps the focus on the emotional ramifications of people’s choices, not the traumatic results. La’Roy and Eunice are forced to come to terms with what she was willing to let happen to “fix” him, providing for a deep exploration of her biases and, to a larger degree, those of West Mills and how they impact future generations.

The care and detail Winslow pours into crafting each character shines through as their present-day motivations are explained by dense, believable histories. Eunice is the daughter of the town drunk (the protagonist of “In West Mills”) who was adopted by a loving family. She will do whatever it takes to maintain the illusion of propriety. It does little to make her likeable but goes a long way in explaining her actions.

“I choose to try to show something good about every character, even if it’s just one moment,” Winslow said in a recent NPR interview about this book. His commitment to crafting complex figures is one of the most compelling qualities about his work and what brings both the inhabitants and town of West Mills to life. Many of the characters who would be easy to hate eventually reveal glimpses of humanity beneath their ugliness, making them recognizable alongside people who exist in the real world.

The product of an openly racist family, Savannah is someone who means well. She has renounced her kin and is struggling to raise her boys on her own in the Black community. But when the murder investigation turns her way, she doesn’t hesitate to pull the lever on her privilege and send the police in Eunice’s direction.

Even Savannah’s father, who possesses plenty of unsavory qualities, is not a monster. He and Eunice both believe the way they mistreat their children is necessary to pave the way for successful lives. Despite the harm they inflict, their parental concern is nevertheless recognizable and serves to make them relatable.

On the surface “Decent People” is a cozy, homespun mystery that sets out to answer who killed the Harmon siblings. But Winslow has tucked a sophisticated story full of entwined relationships and crackling social commentary inside this small-town tale. In examining the bigotry, racism and classism prevalent in West Mills four decades ago, Winslow puts forth the question without directly asking: How much has truly changed?


FICTION

“Decent People”

by De’Shawn Charles Winslow

Bloomsbury Publishing

272 pages, $28