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Review: 'Decent People,' by De'Shawn Charles Winslow

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"Decent People" by De'Shawn Charles Winslow.

"Decent People" by De'Shawn Charles Winslow (Bloomsbury Publishing/TNS)

FICTION: A small Southern town in the 1970s — and a couple — are torn by a mysterious triple murder.

"Decent People" by De'Shawn Charles Winslow; Bloomsbury (272 pages, $28)

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In "Decent People," his second novel, author De'Shawn Charles Winslow has a lot to say about a lot of things. In fewer than 300 pages, Winslow takes on love, racism, Black masculinity, morality, hypocrisy and justice in a small Southern town in the mid-1970s.

But Winslow's deeper theme is the power of secrets: how they drive behavior, inhibit progress and become more toxic the longer they stay hidden. And while times may have changed, the past isn't far behind.

The tale unfolds in West Mills, a fictional North Carolina town near the Virginia border that was the setting for his first book, "In West Mills," winner of the Center for Fiction First Novel prize. Josephine Wright, a middle-aged Black woman and retired executive secretary from New York City, has returned to West Mills, her hometown. She's found love with Olympus Seymore, an earthy Black mechanic and childhood sweetheart who never left town.

Crisis ensues when Jo learns that Lymp, her fiancé, is a suspect in a heinous triple murder that has the town buzzing. All three victims are Lymp's affluent half-siblings, from whom he is estranged: Dr. Marian Harmon, West Mills' officious Black pediatrician; her sporty younger sister Marva; and Lazarus, their fey brother. The motive behind the murders is unclear, but everyone knows Lymp openly held a grudge against Marian, and his alibi is far from ironclad.

Uncertain of her fiancé's innocence and unwilling to trust the lazy cops, Jo starts investigating. A natural sleuth, she finds a bumper crop of potential suspects, people harboring Faulkneresque secrets — some recent, others long buried. In that place at that time, the holders of those secrets would kill to keep them hidden. And Dr. Harmon — calculating, ambitious, strong-willed — seemingly knew all.

"Decent People" is intriguing, but Winslow's novel has a bothersome structural division that mimics the canal that separates West Mills' Black and white communities. Jo Wright drives the action in the first half of the book, but she practically vanishes when the stories of two women — Savannah Russett, the white daughter of a prominent businessman and struggling single mother of two biracial sons, and Eunice Loving, a heretofore upstanding member of the town's Black middle class — begin to unspool.

The women's lives, and their secrets, intertwine when Eunice approaches Dr. Harmon for help with her adolescent son's budding sexual identity. The resulting plot twist propels the second half of the novel, leading to a surprising if barely plausible conclusion. In between, a few more secrets emerge, embedded in the mannered racism and casual homophobia of the era.

As someone who grew up in the South during the 1970s, I found "Decent People" an entertaining, relatable story and Winslow an engaging storyteller. Still, some characters feel underdeveloped, a few plot threads are left dangling and Savannah and Eunice compete to replace Jo as the book's protagonist. And although Winslow set the story in 1976, the book doesn't lean far into the zeitgeist, aside from passing references to cars and kitchen decor.

By the time I finished the novel, however, I realized the details of the era — rabbit-eared TV sets, rotary-dial phones and indoor smoking — were less important than the social attitudes Winslow uses to frame the story. When it comes to race, sexual identity and human nature, he seems to say, things have changed, sort of. But the power of secrets to enlighten, or destroy, has always remained the same.

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Joseph P. Williams Jr. is senior managing editor of Color of Change, an online civil rights nonprofit.

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