In the sleepy fictional town of Winsome Bay, Wis., a woman walking her dog stumbles on a body. The deceased is Deborah Ellison, 23. The officer called to the scene to identify her brutally mangled corpse is her father.
So begins James DeVita’s “A Winsome Murder,” a mystery that represents the prolific DeVita’s first foray into adult fiction in a writing career that has produced numerous plays and adaptations as well as two novels for younger readers.
DeVita is also a gifted actor and smart director whose credits include playing Romeo in an unforgettable production of “Romeo and Juliet.”
It therefore comes as no surprise that James Mangan, the Chicago-based detective called upon to solve a string of murders beginning with Deborah, has a great deal in common with DeVita himself, from first name and physique to an unquenchable passion for Shakespeare.
Indeed, I’d bet my house that DeVita also shares Mangan’s tic of hearing Shakespeare’s lines running through his head. Ditto the snippets Mangan hears from Herman Melville, about whom “Winsome” makes some spot-on observations, and Samuel Beckett.
Such verbal pings are also integral to Mangan’s everyday detective work.
“When they came to him, he paid attention, because in some strange way he knew they were there to help him … find murderers,” we learn from the close third-person voice narrating “Winsome.” “It was part of his job, he’d come to believe, to let the words in … to encourage the fiction of it and dream the wicked dreams of murderers, who never played by day-waking rules.”
We’re treated to 99 of these italicized interjections, usually direct quotes and all scrupulously cataloged in an appendix. Mangan himself calls them “quirks,” and that’s how they read; they call attention to themselves, often slowing an otherwise quickening narrative that gathers momentum as the body count rises.
Nor are these fragments necessary, given how fully and persuasively DeVita’s narrative sounds out themes that continually reappear in Shakespeare, in ways that require no such literal underscoring:
▪ How readily an ostensibly placid surface gives way when our primal urges stir, leading us toward madness. Both the killer Mangan tracks and Mangan himself are divided men, harboring frighteningly dark and violent impulses they can’t always control.
▪ Our lust for vengeance when we feel we’ve been wronged. The red herrings in “Winsome” aren’t always convincing, but that’s because DeVita has such a fine feel for how much more powerful our core passions can be than frequently lightweight explanations of motive might suggest.
▪ The fraught and tangled relations between parents and their offspring, and particularly between fathers and the daughters for whom they harbor a boundless, all-consuming love.
In demolishing the lines separating our greatest poet from a much-maligned literary genre, DeVita has been true to his career’s inspiring project — apparent in his insistently populist approach to acting and throughout “In Acting Shakespeare,” his compelling stage autobiography — of reclaiming the Bard from stuffy aesthetes and academicians.
Put another way, both Mangan and DeVita himself make it cool to love Shakespeare, without apology. That’s a story we can’t ever read often enough.
“A Winsome Murder,” by James DeVita (196 pages; Terrace Books; $26.95)