It’s easy for the normal person to wonder what mountains there are left to climb for James DeVita, who may well be the finest actor ever to grace the stages in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
DeVita is now riding the crest of an impressive and beguiling first adult novel with the mystery, "A Winsome Murder," which is unlike any mystery I’ve ever read. Add this to the list of his impressive credentials, and it’s easy to ask yourself, "What’s next."
Last year, Terry Teachout, one of the world’s most respected critics, wrote that "... America has no finer classical actor than Jim DeVita, a 21-year veteran of Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre." High praise, indeed, for a former Long Island fisherman who adds director, playwright, young adult book author and incredibly modest husband and father to all of his credits.
DeVita is well-known to Milwaukee audiences, having performed often, including in last year's one-man show "American Song," the best play I saw all season. He’s an actor of immense stature and a seeming natural at his craft. He has played many great roles, and each time brings added value and new insight into familiar characters.
DeVita, who is married to Brenda DeVita, the artistic director at American Players Theatre, is a member of the core company at APT, but it seems there is no single role or position that defines him.
I’m a big fan mysteries and regularly read all the big names: Grisham, Coben, King, Martini, Child, Baldacci, Sanford and Connelly. DeVita’s book is like nothing I've ever read.
DeVita brings an actor’s sensibilities to this novel, introducing characters and events in chapterettes that move the story along at a relentless pace. The mystery continues to mount and become evermore complex, a commonality with most of the good mysteries I read.
Where this one differs is in the hero. Chicago detective James Mangan fits the bill of the overused phrase "hard boiled detective," but there are profound differences that set him apart from Lucas Davenport or Jack Reacher or Paul Madriani or Virgil Flowers.
Mangan has spent a lifetime fighting crime and reading. His apartment bulges with books and his favorite, perhaps compulsive, is Shakespeare. He’s read all the plays but one, often several times and has found that the dialogue from the plays – "quirks," he calls them – play out in his head at all times but in a heightened perspective during an investigation.
The snippets – there are 99 of them – are not clues in and of themselves. Instead, they are stimulants that add either clarity or confusion to the intellectual process Mangan, the veteran hunter, follows in his search for a killer.
Another strength of this novel is also, I suspect, a tribute to DeVita’s job as an actor. He has the knack of giving a unique voice to each character we meet. Writing dialogue may well be the most difficult part of writing a book. Too often the voices sound like the voices of a writer, rather than a distinct human being with his or her own choice of words and rhythms. DeVita gives individual attention to each character.
DeVita is also, both in my own experience and the words of others, a very nice man who wears a cloak of humility that might make a pope envious. He is gracious, funny and perceptive, but doesn’t much suffer fools and is reluctant to talk about himself.
We chatted briefly before the APT opening of "Death of a Salesman." I told him how much I liked the book, and he said thank you. I asked what was next.
"I’m working on a second novel," he said. "Same character."
That means more of Detective Mangan and William Shakespeare. And more of James DeVita.
That’s pretty much a winning trifecta in anybody’s book.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.