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The Do-Right

Lone Star Literary Life

The Do-Right (an old Southern term for prison) is Lisa Sandlin’s first mystery novel. Set in Beaumont, Texas, in 1973, it joins the growing subgenre of Gulf Coast Noir. Delpha Wade, returning to Beaumont after fourteen years in the women’s prison at Gatesville for killing one of the men who raped her on a dance-hall floor, needs a job as a condition of parole. Tom Phelan is a Vietnam veteran opening his practice as a private investigator. Wade has a business course certificate from Gatesville. Phelan needs a secretary and takes a chance on Wade. Together they ferret out unfaithful husbands, missing persons, industrial espionage, and a serial killer. The Do-Right is a satisfying and entertaining contribution to classic noir.
The quick-witted, determined Delpha Wade is a sympathetic character who uses improv skills and hard-won knowledge of human nature (“You can learn to lose curiosity”) gleaned on the inside to adjust to life on the outside. It is a pleasure to watch her slowly unfurling, like a time-lapse of a flower opening to the sun. “Delpha had promised herself patience. Get used to all the clear air around her, the streets stretching out, doors that open open open. Couldn’t come all at once. Come slow. She’d have to get used to wearing sky over her head.” Tom Phelan is a likeable guy learning to be a private investigator who turns out to be like a terrier with a bone when two and two don’t make four. “This case was dead as a crab in crude, but it wouldn’t stop skittering sideways.”

The historical detail brings 1973 alive. The Watergate hearings are on TV, Hank Aaron is chasing the Babe’s home-run record, eight-track tapes and men sporting Burt Reynolds sideburns abound. You can feel Beaumont as well with its Cajun culture, sulfur smell of petrochemicals, and subtropical humidity.

Sandlin writes in the noir tradition (“Phelan stepped over the threshold into a curtain of bourbon fume and iron and silence”), colloquially, with simple but precise language, in fragments and dropped conjunctions. “Phelan asked for Georgia and found her, said he wanted to talk.” You can hear Bogie, can’t you? Wade, exasperated with Phelan: “You need to know something I learned from my past, ask me straight out. I’ll tell you. Just don’t act like my slip is showing.”

The Do-Right is funny, too. “Putting the paper away, he [Phelan] wondered how she felt about her boy Nixon now that he’d acquired his own special prosecutor. Phelan had had one of those in third grade, until he cracked the fifth-grader’s head with a Davy Crockett lunch box. Maybe Nixon’d try that.” And cases that require such sentences as, “Why would your brother and sister want your artificial leg?”

As the narrative moves between Wade and Phelan, Sandlin creates a trail of expertly-dropped clues. As she begins braiding storylines (“It’s just … there’s kinda a collision of circumstances happening here.”) into a surprising, elegant conclusion, history attempts to repeat itself and Beaumont proves to be smaller than it looks. You could call it Beaumont Confidential.
- Michelle Newby, October 13, 2015  Visit Website

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