Readers know that a writer has created an effective murder mystery when they are kept guessing, and then are utterly surprised by the revelation of the guilty party. Prize-winning gay author De’Shawn Charles Winslow does precisely that in his second novel “Decent People” (Bloomsbury, 2023).
Like his debut novel, “In West Mills,” the follow-up “Decent People” is set in the same fictional North Carolina town, still segregated in the mid-1970s. The triple-murder of three siblings has the town abuzz, and as we are introduced to the various townsfolk, we discover that many had reason to commit the crime. Additionally, Winslow takes on race and queerness with an expert hand, expanding the reach of the story.
Gregg Shapiro: Being a North Carolina native yourself, what were the challenges and rewards of creating a fictional town such as West Mills, as you did in your 2019 debut novel “In West Mills,” and to which you have returned in your new novel “Decent People?”
De’Shawn Charles Winslow: Since the real town of South Mills, North Carolina is so familiar to me, it was really easy to create a slightly different version of it as ‘West Mills.’Returning to it for a second book was fun because it allowed me to add some minor details that I hadn’t in the first book. It’s rewarding in that most of the setting work is already done for me.
West Mills is the very definition of a small town, right down to its population of 1,000 people. Was your North Carolina hometown of Elizabeth City as small?
Elizabeth City is a little bigger because there’s a university and a coast guard base there. But it still has that small town vibe.
The title of the novel comes from the 13th chapter when Savannah’s father Ted refers to the Harmon family as “decent people.” Did you already have the title when you were writing the novel or did what Ted says inspire you to use it for that purpose?
The final title was an amalgamation of clunky titles I pitched to my editor, all of which were trying to capture the idea of somewhat nice people doing awful things – things they believed were for the common good. The original title was “Pharaoh’s Army,” based on a scene with Lymp and his mom. But once I edited that conversation, the title no longer worked.
Family, in particular siblings, including the Harmons, Jo and Herschel, and Troy and Terrance, are central to the novel. Do you have siblings, and if so, how does your relationship with them compare to those in your book?
I have many siblings, and though we aren’t super close, we don’t have any issues with each other [laughs]. My interest in siblings is more so based on the fact that I know so many people who have full and half-siblings. It’s so common where I’m from that it’s almost strange when a person doesn’t have any half-siblings.
As Jo says about West Mills, “everyone’s got a secret.” But secrets don’t stay secret very long the way townspeople spread gossip. “Decent People” is set in 1976, many years before social media. Does that have anything to do with why you set it then?
I chose the year mainly because of a triple accidental drowning that occurred in South Millsin the mid-1970s. I learned about the drowning from my mother and aunt. Originally, the Harmons were going to be those drowning victims, but I changed it to a triple murder because I wanted a louder engine for the novel. The other reason 1976 worked well is because in “In West Mills,” La’Roy is born 14 years prior. It was the perfect year logistically.
“Decent People” is full of period references including the TV shows “McMillan & Wife” and “Laverne & Shirley,” the 1971 Camden riot, model Donyale Luna, actor Calvin Lockhart, kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst, and even Body on Tap Shampoo. Was it fun for you to fit those elements into the storyline?
Google is such a lovely thing [laughs]! But I also watch old TV shows that often include lots of pop culture references.
At its core, “Decent People” is a murder mystery. Do you have a favorite mystery writer from whom you find inspiration?
I haven’t read enough mysteries to have a favorite yet. Most of my mystery consumption comes from TV. I grew up watching shows like “Murder, She Wrote,” “Matlock,” and “Father Dowling Mysteries” with my parents. And during the early months of the pandemic, I found myself watching some of those and other detective shows, new and old. I do plan to read more mysteries, though.
Queerness is also an essential part of “Decent People.” Jo’s brother Herschel is gay, Eunice’s son La’Roy is gay. In fact, Eunice takes La’Roy to see Dr. Harmon to have “the gay removed.” Is this your commentary on conversion therapy?
Absolutely. I wanted to point out that conversion therapy can come in various forms. Sometimes it’s simply always telling a child to walk differently, speak differently, laugh differently, and so on. Sometimes the conversion attempts are so passive that one might not even realize they’re experiencing it until years later.
You also make a point of talking about how Herschel left North Carolina and moved north to a place where he could live his life without fear or threat of violence. You also left North Carolina for New York. Please say something about that.
When I first left my hometown, I went to a larger North Carolina city where there were many openly queer people and places for us to be who we were. Those were some very liberating years. I remember my first time going to a gay bar like it was just last week. I wasn’t old enough to be there, of course. But in those days, people turned their heads and let 19-year-olds in [laughs].They knew we were just looking for community.
“Decent People” is very cinematic. If there were a movie adaptation, who would you want to play Jo? Eunice? La’Roy? Savannah? Ted?
I believe Sheryl Lee Ralph would make a great Jo. Another interviewer mentioned that, and it has stuck with me. I think Anika Noni Rose would be great for Eunice. I haven’t thought about actors for other characters much.
Have you started working on or thinking about your next writing project?
I have recently decided what my next book will be about. All I’ll say for now is that it’ll be set in the 1980s and in a real-life, North Carolina town, with all brand-new characters. I’m excited about it.
‘Decent People,’ by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, Bloomsbury, $28 hardback, $19.60 ebook.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.