Readers of De’Shawn Charles Winslow’s award-winning debut novel, In West Mills, a multigenerational saga spanning the 1940s through the ’80s, will be thrilled to return to the titular small town in Decent People. It’s 1976, and the town’s only Black physician, Dr. Marian Harmon, has been found dead from a gunshot in her West Mills home, along with her brother and sister.
The Harmons’ half brother, Lymp Seymore, had a strained relationship with the victims, and he is immediately questioned by police, who show little interest in actually solving the shocking crime. Lymp’s fiancée, Jo Wright, begins sleuthing on her own, and her investigation leads her to believe that more than one person had a motive for the crime.
As the story unspools, Winslow shifts point of view from character to character, successfully developing a large cast that’s connected by multiple intermingling plotlines, including a particularly poignant one involving a boy facing homophobia. Revelations about the cast’s relationships not only move the mystery forward but also contain pitch-perfect zingers and crushing truths about race, privilege, pride and shame. For example, Savannah Russet, the white daughter of the Harmons’ landlord, was disowned by her family when she married a Black man. Savannah was also best friends with Marian, and they had a very public argument not long before her murder. But when a police officer telephones Savannah during the investigation, he reassures her that there’s no need to come in for questioning because “You don’t exactly fit the profile, if you know what I mean.”
Anyone who adored Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake and Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Take My Hand, take note. Winslow invites readers on a satisfying ride that, through his keen observations of human nature, leads to deeper considerations of the glacial progress of racial equality. “It’s 1976. There’s no Klan anymore,” Savannah’s father proclaims at one point, but then he quickly admits to himself that “it still existed, and that it always would.” To reveal such underlying truths, Decent People twists the light this way and that, showing the simmering tensions that can indeed turn deadly.