A triple murder is at the center of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s superb second novel about the sleepy fictional town of West Mills, North Carolina, where rumors run rampant and family histories trace back through time like vines of wisteria.
Decent People, set in 1976, is quite different from Winslow’s debut novel, In West Mills, a multigenerational saga spanning the 1940s through the ’80s that won the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize in 2019. But both books are character-driven treasures, and while no major characters are the same, fans will recognize crossover figures and family names.
Winslow says he always planned to write more about West Mills, and creating Decent People was in some ways more straightforward than his first book. “A murder mystery isn’t going to go on for 20 years,” he says. “Keeping the scope short made things easier for me.” The author speaks from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, where he moved a year ago after giving in to “city burnout” in New York City.
With a population of about a thousand, West Mills is based on Winslow’s mother’s hometown of South Mills, North Carolina. He changed the town’s name after feeling bogged down by his quest for historical accuracy. (A canal runs through both places, for instance, but in Winslow’s creation, the water divides the racially segregated community.)
Therein lies a foundational truth of Winslow’s writing life: Nonfiction can bring inspiration, but fiction allows him “to be free to create worlds [by] using true information as the seed.” He can trace this inclination back to the earliest days of his career.
“I didn’t come from a bookish family at all,” Winslow says. “I do vaguely remember some Dr. Suess books, but no one was really reading them to me,” so he used them as coloring books instead. After discovering Toni Morrison’s Beloved in college, he decided to try his hand at writing. The hope was to write his father’s story to better understand him after his death. Before Winslow was born to his father’s third wife, his father had five children by age 24 with his first wife. His father also spent some time in prison for house burglaries but refused to discuss it. Of course, some questions can never be answered, so Winslow began writing fiction about his father instead—and then eventually about West Mills.
The seed for Decent People emerged at a family gathering, when Winslow’s aunt asked his mother if she recalled the tragic deaths of three older women from decades earlier. The women always drove to church together, and presumably due to some sort of vehicle mishap, they drove into the town’s canal and drowned.
Winslow started writing the story with gusto, assuming that the accidental drownings would lead to revelations about the characters who knew the deceased. However, he quickly found himself bored with his plot. “I had all this social commentary down about homophobia and drugs,” he recalls, “but it needed something else. And that’s when I turned it into three people who were murdered.”
Decent People opens as 60-year-old Jo Wright retires from Harlem to her childhood home of West Mills. She has barely gotten out of her car when she learns that three people have just been murdered: the town’s prominent Black doctor, Dr. Marian Harmon, and her two adult siblings. Jo’s fiancé, Lymp Seymore, is suspected of shooting the trio, who are his half siblings.
Jo is calm, smart and a bit glamorous, an amateur investigator whose nearly 6-foot height catches people’s attention. “If she was based on anyone at all, it would be Jessica Fletcher from ‘Murder, She Wrote,’” Winslow says. I suggest that she could also be perfectly portrayed by Emmy Award-winning actor Sheryl Lee Ralph of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary.” “Now that you’ve put that in my brain,” he says, laughing, “I’m going to envision her as Jo!”
As Jo begins investigating the murders, she acknowledges the history of Black people doing “their own legwork and [gathering] information the police hadn’t even tried to find,” she says in the book. “Cases reopened, police chiefs proven lazy, racist. Or both.” She quickly discovers that several people have possible motives for the crime, and from there, Winslow leads readers through a story told by a large cast of characters, many of whom draw on memories from their pasts.
One of the novel’s central figures is a young gay boy, whose storyline is one of the notable differences between Decent People and In West Mills. “When I was writing In West Mills, the topic of homophobia wasn’t really on my mind,” Winslow says. “I was thinking of the town in a far more loving way. But with this book, I had to think about all of the disadvantages that a town like that can pose to a queer person, especially a young queer person.”
The result is a wonderfully jampacked saga that flows well yet feels much denser than its 272 pages. Winslow admits that he loves the plots and characters of Charles Dickens’ novels but doesn’t like to read—much less write—long books. He credits novelist Ethan Canin for teaching him how to keep his own prose spare through the concept of “scene hygiene,” which means “once the point of the scene is made, move on.”
For his next book, Winslow is toying with a few ideas for stories set in West Mills, possibly inspired by his mother and aunts. He’s also contemplating something autobiographical, although he feels his own life story lacks a central conflict. “I don’t want it to be ‘young gay Black male moves to New York and works a bunch of jobs, goes to college, has some boyfriends and breakups, and at the end of the book he’s 43.’” Though honestly, if Winslow is writing it, I’d read that, too.
Photo of De’Shawn Charles Winslow by Julie R. Keresztes. This article has been updated to correct and clarify details of the author’s life.