DG MARTIN COLUMN: West Mills is not Walterboro

In a small Carolina coastal area town, where a dominating family controls much of life, some members of the prominent family have been murdered.

It could be Walterboro, South Carolina, where some members of a prominent family have been murdered and one member is charged with killing his wife and son.

Or it could be the fictional North Carolina town of West Mills where a dominating family controls much of life.

In “Decent People,” the new book by De’Shawn Charles Winslow, there are reminders of the actual ongoing murder trial of Alex Murdaugh in Walterboro, South Carolina, Winslow’s debut novel.

“In West Mills,” readers are introduced to the town and its residents in the 1940s.

The new book, which begins in March 1976, looks at the same town in the 1970s.

The new book, “Decent People,” opens, “Josephine Wright could have kissed the ground, she was so glad to arrive back at home in West Mills, North Carolina.”

Jo Wright was born and grew up in West Mills. But she had lived in New York for 48 years. Now she was returning to West Mills to enjoy retirement, live in a cottage, and marry Olympus “Lymp” Seymore, “the man she had waited so long to find, someone she had known as a child.”

Upon her arrival, she was met by Lymp’s son, Nath, who told her that Dr. Marian Harmon, Marva Harmon, and Laz Harmon were dead.

“Somebody shot ‘em in their house. And that is only the half of it. People trying to pin it on Lymp.”

The Harmons were Lymp’s half-siblings, and everybody knew they did not get along.

Jo does not believe Lymp was involved in the murders, and she sets out to find the real killer. On the frame of Jo’s search, Winslow builds his mystery.

Marian Harmon is the only Black doctor in West Mills. The police believe the Harmons could have been involved with illegal drugs. Marian was smart and greedy, but proving her involvement in drugs would be difficult. The police do not follow up.

The Harmons rented clinic space from Ted Temple, a white man and one of the town’s richest citizens. Shortly before the murders, Marian and Temple were observed arguing vigorously.

Eunice Loving, a local store operator and the loving mother of a budding teenager named La’Roy, had engaged Marian to “cure” La’Roy’s developing gay condition. She was shocked and angry when she learned that Marian had arranged a brutal beating as part of La’Roy’s “cure.”

Ted Temple’s daughter, Savannah, was a widow with two-mixed race children. Marian directed them to help attack La’Roy in the effort to “cure” him of his gayness.

La’Roy’s mother, Eunice, also had a grievance against Marian about how the “conversion” effort was handled. When she found out what took place, she had an angry confrontation with Marian at the clinic.

Jo’s search for the murderer finally and surprisingly concludes, but only after the reader has learned the complex story of life in West Mills.

Race and gayness are keys to unraveling the murder and Winslow, who is Black and gay, uses his platform to teach his readers how difficult and painful life in the South can be.

“Decent People” assures Winslow a place in the pantheon of great Southern writers.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s “North Carolina Bookwatch.”