A Winsome Murder
by James Devita
Chicago Police Detective James Mangan has a heavy case load—“two rapes, a North Side drive-by, a robbery gone bad with a baseball bat, and a dealer thrown off a roof in the projects”—when he is handed his next investigation.
That investigation is launched when Mangan opens a manila envelope to find inside a photograph of a dismembered hand, a hand that had recently been delivered to a local magazine editor in a padded envelope just like so many padded envelopes that every day are added to his unending slush pile of article submissions. As it happens, the hand turns out to be quite a story in and of itself.
James Mangan, a somewhat offbeat, self-educated intellectual who hears voices in his head, knows in his heart that the owner of the hand is dead—and so begins the search for that individual in A Winsome Murder, a tightly woven detective story full of colorful characters navigating numerous twists and turns.
Set in Chicago and Wisconsin, A Winsome Murder features several gruesome murders along with a cast of interesting people, from police officers and detectives to hookers and pimps to waitresses and writers—not to mention a psychotic, vengeful misogynist. Many of the lives so vividly brought to life in these pages intersect in interesting ways, and author James Devita does an excellent job of weaving the reader in to the tight-knit circle of crime that unfolds in this mystery.
Devita, a New York-bred playwright and author who now lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has written a fast-paced, multifaceted story that is as absorbing as it is entertaining. Detective Mangan drives the story, and he is an intriguing, complex character with fascinating yet believable quirks. Although it seems that so many mysteries are home to detectives with oddball idiosyncrasies, Mangan doesn’t come off as a cliché. Yes, he probably drinks too much. Yes, he’s overweight. Yes, his wife is no longer in the picture. And, yes, he has a daughter who ends up in jeopardy. But Mangan somehow still feels like a fresh, new character—and one who could easily become part of a long-lived series.
As the bodies pile up in A Winsome Murder, Mangan heeds the voices in his head, usually from Shakespeare or Melville, and those voices help him focus his thoughts and tap into a kind of sixth sense that propels him toward a solution to the crime. Peppered with literary references, Mangan’s unique quirk lends the story a erudite bent, one that might well be appealing to closet mystery readers who think the genre somehow beneath them.
Although a quirky detective seems a prerequisite for a mystery, A Winsome Murder is far from formulaic. Expertly paced, the story is an intricate web full of complex characters acting unpredictably—just like real people do. Even at those times when the reader might be a half-step ahead of the story, the developments remain gasp-worthy, surprising even if not shocking.
In addition to a unique detective, a wholly original story, and some literary flair, Devita has filled these pages with some timely and biting social commentary, which does much to add to the real feel of this creative whodunit. A Winsome Murder is well written, well wrought, and well paced. It is well worth a read, a fun, enjoyable, engaging page-turner that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the last page.
June 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
$26.95, hardcover, 189 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen