Review: Guilty Creatures: Sex, God, and Murder in Tallahassee, Florida

On December 16, 2000, 31-year-old real estate appraiser Mike Williams left his Tallahassee, Fla., home to go duck hunting on nearby Lake Seminole. He never returned to his wife, Denise, and daughter, Anslee, but it took nearly 17 years to uncover the shocking story behind his death and its aftermath. Mikita Brottman (The Solitary Vice, An Unexplained Death) describes a lurid tale of sexual intrigue and betrayal in a tight-knit faith community in her smart, fast-paced Guilty Creatures: Sex, God, and Murder in Tallahassee, Florida.

From their days at Tallahassee's North Florida Christian High School, a private Baptist school, Mike and Denise shared a close friendship with Brian Winchester and his wife, Kathy. Both couples married in 1994, but by 1997, Denise and Brian had begun an affair. It took them three years to formulate and act on the scheme to murder Mike, but on that morning, Brian secretly accompanied him to the lake with the plan of pushing him out of his boat and watching him drown under the weight of his hunting gear. In his panic when the plot didn't go as planned, Brian shot his close friend and buried his body miles away, where it remained undiscovered until October 2017.

Despite the persistent, albeit sometimes unconventional, efforts of Mike's mother, Cheryl, to keep the investigation active, it languished for years, though Denise received nearly $1.8 million in insurance proceeds--most from policies Brian had sold Mike--and she and Brian married in 2005. Paradoxically, as Brottman explains, at times the murder drew Denise and Brian more deeply into their faith, as they sought comfort and support from its teachings and their church community. But over the years, as the weight of their guilt mounted and the cracks in Brian's psychological armor became irreparable, the bond between these "adulterous Baptist lovers" eventually ruptured.

Brottman, who holds a doctorate in English literature from Oxford and is trained in psychoanalysis, usefully brings these elements of her background to this project. For the epigraphs that accompany each chapter, she draws from works like James Cain's novels Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as Shakespeare's Macbeth, and the spirits of Dostoevsky and Poe hover over the story. Her reflections on Brian and Denise's complicated inner lives, especially when she's interrogating their attempt to rationalize their deeds with their Christian faith, or examining Brian's longtime sex addiction and his painful unraveling, help shape the book's intriguingly multidimensional account.

The tragic tale of a couple whose lust overpowers their inhibitions and drives them to commit a heinous crime is hardly new, but as Brottman demonstrates with freshness and verve in Guilty Creatures, that doesn't make it an any less engrossing one. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: A lurid tale of crime and punishment in a fundamentalist Christian community.

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