A shiver just went down my spine. Why? I finished reading James DeVita’s A Winsome Murder at the exact time described in the book’s first sentence (“A humid night in August, after midnight”). Looking again at the book, I am also struck both by lament and surprise. The lament comes from having already read this darkly entertaining book and now having to wait until there is (hopefully) a follow-up thriller that revisits DeVita’s setting of Winsome Bay, Wisconsin. As for the surprise, that’s because the book is not constructed in separate-chapter format — I hadn’t even noticed it while reading. That’s how engaged I was with it. The story and characters were all that concerned me, which is how it should be with all great stories.
A Winsome Murder (Terrace Books/Univ. of Wisconsin Press) is the new and remarkable debut adult thriller from actor/director/playwright (and acclaimed YA fiction writer) James DeVita. Under 200 pages in length, this is a novel written in lean yet masterful prose that packs more richly-imagined life and nuance into one page than several lesser thrillers pound into ten.
It’s the story of a series of brutal and seemingly random murders that take place in and around Wisconsin. As is often the case in the modern thriller genre, the victims are women. The book is uniformly concerned at first with the lives of female characters: first-victim Deborah Ellison; struggling journalist Jillian McClay, who sees in the murder of Ellison the chance to write a local story not unlike what Truman Capote achieved in his re-telling of the Clutter family slaughter in Kansas with In Cold Blood; a local waitress introduced only by the first name Fenyana; and Mara Davies, a friend to Jillian, and submissions editor at regional magazine American Forum, where Jillian’s articles begin to appear. It isn’t until nearly thirty pages into the story that we are introduced to the main character of this thriller—James Mangan, who embodies the crime-novel archetype of “the detective,” but who is also a great deal more. The story of how he and his partner, Frank “Coose” Cusumano, try to stop the killer — who first uses the name “The Chooser” and then “The Righter” in cryptic notes left at the murder scenes — becomes the primary vehicle that drives the rest of the book.
As a first-time thriller writer, DeVita’s considerable background in the theatre world serves him especially well. He has a marvelous knack for fresh yet authentic dialogue, and his plot construction is crisp in execution and razor-sharp in effect. DeVita possesses the sleek immediacy of a lone storyteller who knows as an actor how to hold a full audience’s attention in a darkened room through words alone. For a writer, this is a vital skill—and DeVita has it in spades.
If I were to have any complaint about A Winsome Murder, it would reside with DeVita’s choice to make his Mangan character into a Shakespeare and Herman Melville fanatic. Some backstory is provided in the novel as to how and why Mangan has become the obsessed Bardolater he is throughout the book. Short bursts of Shakespeare’s works, along with some lines from Melville’s Moby-Dick, flash into Mangan’s mind at crucial points during his investigation. An admittedly unique device for a crime thriller, these literary-minded digressions sometimes get in the way of what is working so well in DeVita’s own writing.
Should this first book lead to a series of other Mangan-centered thrillers (and I hope it does), I am left to wonder if further lines from Shakespeare will be necessary. Either way, Devita has the start of something magnificent here. He has created a complex and intriguing character in Mangan, and A Winsome Murder sets the stage for what could be one of the best new thriller series in years.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=029930440X]