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The Do-Right

Publishers Weekly 1 Stars
Sandlin’s clipped prose style is pleasingly eccentric, and can become downright Chandleresque.
In 1973, Delpha Wade, the heroine of Sandlin’s impressive debut, is released from Texas’s Gatesville Women’s Prison (aka the Do-Right) after serving 14 years for killing a man who was raping her. Needing a job pronto, Delpha becomes secretary to fledgling private eye Tom Phelan, a former oil rigger and Vietnam vet who has just opened a detective agency in Beaumont, Tex. Phelan Investigations attracts a motley lot of cases, including one boasting a scenario worthy of the Coen brothers: a man retains Phelan because his prosthetic leg is being held hostage by his brother and sister. The romance, both torrid and touching, between Delpha and a 20-year-old college kid named Isaac adds emotional depth. Sandlin’s clipped prose style is pleasingly eccentric, and can become downright Chandleresque (“The nose had a curve a school bus’d run off of”). And while the narrative veers over the yellow lines several times, the novel wraps up with an exciting sequence that neatly knits together multiple story lines.
- Publishers Weekly , August 1, 2015  Visit Website
Kirkus Review 1 Stars
[Lisa] Sandlin blends pathos, humor, and poetic prose in a strong debut.
A former oilman and a determined parolee form a detective team in Texas’ bayou country.

Delpha Wade is conscientiously following her parole officer’s rules for finding a place to live and a job: act as polite as possible and ask for what she needs. This double-A advice lands her a room in the New Rosemont Hotel in exchange for looking after the owner’s ancient aunt and a day job as secretary for Tom Phelan’s brand-new detective agency. She does more than ask for the job: she greets the first customer, who's been drawn in by an ad in the Beaumont Enterprise, and starts acting like Tom’s secretary before he’s even agreed to hire her. Tom, who recently lost part of a finger on an oil rig, wants to keep the remaining nine digits and has put all his workers’ comp into this new business. But Delpha’s 14 years for voluntary manslaughter at the Gatesville Women’s Prison, known locally as the Do-Right, taught her more than bookkeeping and typing. She learned more about what got her there in the first place for killing one of two men who were raping her—the will to survive. Now she’s just what Tom needs to nudge him into taking the case of a missing boy and help with the stakeout of a cheating husband, the recovery of a missing artificial leg, and the mystery of a possibly poisoned dog. In her off hours, Delpha helps her landlady seek a mysterious Tiffany item and starts a love affair with a Princeton dropout. While the Watergate hearings blare in the background and Beaumont’s colorful citizenry discusses them and every other topic large and small, Tom’s admiration for Delpha grows, along with his unease about the adulterous husband and the only temporarily missing boy. But in his blossoming detective zeal to dig more deeply into the cases, he doesn’t realize how much he’s endangering his able sidekick.

Despite plot pieces that fit together a little too snugly, Sandlin blends pathos, humor, and poetic prose in a strong debut.
- Kirkus Review, July 15, 2015  Visit Website
Book Riot
I’m especially excited about this one ... rather than starring the dude who runs the detective agency, it’s actually more about his secretary, a woman who just got out of prison after serving fourteen years for killing one of the men who raped her.
Discoveries from the Book Expo Floor: 4 Upcoming Crime Novels with Female Leads

The Do-Right, by Lisa Sandlin — I’m especially excited about this one because — according to the publisher’s rep — rather than starring the dude who runs the detective agency, it’s actually more about his secretary … a woman who just got out of prison after serving fourteen years for killing one of the men who raped her.

It’s set in the ’70s in a blue collar Texas town, and involves disappearing teenagers, a serial killer, exotic animals, and the advent of some sort of new, oil-related product. But wait, there’s more! While out and about on a weekend break from all of the private detective-style action, Delpha, our heroine, has a run-in with the guy who got away … the other man who raped her.

(I admit it, I’m hoping it goes in a revenge-y direction.)

To top it all off, the book opens with this killer Salman Rushdie quote: “I remember telling myself not to carry the hatred around, although I know where it is. I have it in a trunk in storage.” CHILLS, I HAVE THEM. —Leila Roy, Bookriot
- Leila Roy, June 13, 2015  Visit Website
Killer Nashville
Lisa Sandlin’s “The Do-Right” is something akin to a rusted nail through the foot: it’s dirty, it hurts, and it’ll have you jumping up and down — or possibly just on the floor. … Sandlin makes fantastic use of familiar, archetypal characters and brings new life into them by crafting narrative that, past the surface of an exciting detective story, seems to search for a sense of grace or forgiveness.
Delpha Wade, protagonist in Lisa Sandlin’s The Do-Right, is newly paroled and in desperate need of a job, or else she will face the possibility of returning to prison where she spent fourteen years after killing one of her rapists. Cue Tom Phelan — veteran and ex-oil-rigger turned sleuth — a friend of Delpha’s parole officer who needs a competent secretary for his burgeoning P.I. firm. At first glance, the two appear an unlikely pair, perhaps. But, throughout the course of the novel, they form a partnership that is effective, and entirely incumbent on their respective backgrounds.
The Do-Right is set against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal. In classic noir fashion, the novel is threaded throughout with testaments to dirty, rotten humanity — such as the omnipresent reminder of Nixon in the height of his dishonesty, and an entire country victim to a sense of betrayal. These reminders imbue the novel with an undertone of disillusionment while juxtaposing it against harrowing investigations of blue-collar crime in Texas by our protagonists at Phelan Investigations.
Sandlin makes fantastic use of familiar, archetypal characters — the neophyte sleuth, the woman with the troubled past, etcetera, etcetera — and brings new life into them by crafting narrative that, past the surface of an exciting detective story, seems to search for a sense of grace or forgiveness.
Delpha, haunted by her years spent on the inside and the memory of her rape, longs for a fresh start. “Something different than anything I had before,” she says when asked what she’s saving up for. But when Delpha comes face-to-face with her surviving rapist on a fishing excursion, she realizes a fresh start might not be possible.
Phelan, for his part, spends much of the novel learning the ropes — often berating himself for novice mistakes. Though inexperienced, the P.I. has a knack for sniffing out clues. Most importantly, perhaps, he has a thirst for seeing an investigation all the way through, and an ability to leave no stone unturned — possibly at great cost.
This novel has it all—murder, mystery, abuse, corporate espionage. Take your pick. The prose reads like movie stills from an old detective flick. It gives snapshots of each moment spent in the grungy, infected world Sandlin has created. The language is sparse and precise; the syntax is musical. Sandlin shows a mastery for crafting dialog, as well, brilliantly utilizing the expository possibilities of genuine, human conversation.
Lisa Sandlin’s The Do-Right is something akin to a rusted nail through the foot: it’s dirty, it hurts, and it’ll have you jumping up and down — or possibly just on the floor. Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan are as lovable a duo as any in noir fiction, and they bring a dynamism to the familiar archetypes that can so easily grow stale.
Will Phelan Investigations survive? Can Delpha live in peace with her rapist still alive? These are just a few of the mysteries you’ll have to solve yourself.
- Joseph Borden , October 13, 2015  Visit Website
The Dallas Morning News
Don’t take the critic’s word for it. Check out “The Do-Right,” and see if you don’t find yourself reading passages aloud just for the sheer pleasure of it.
When a critic praises a writer’s original voice, what does that really mean? In the case of Texas native Lisa Sandlin, it means dog-earing page after page in her novel “The Do-Right,” to reread particularly terrific passages or, even better, share them aloud.

It’s 1973, and Vietnam vet Tom Phelan, short a finger thanks to an oil-rig accident, has decided to set up shop as a private eye. An old friend turned parole officer persuades him to interview a just-released woman for a job opening.

When Phelan meets the woman, and sees her freshly minted certificate in secretarial skills from the Texas Department of Corrections, something resonates.

“Delpha Wade. His brain ratcheted a picture toward him but not far enough, like when the Payday gets hung up partway out of the vending machine.”

Phelan eventually places the name. Delpha Wade earned notoriety as a teen for managing to get the knife away from the father-son team who raped her. She earned 14 years in prison for killing the son. The father got away.

Phelan and Wade have some shortcomings in the detecting department. Phelan has persistence, charm and an uncle in the police department, but no experience. Wade has some insight into the criminal mind, thanks to 14 years in the “Do-Right,” but she’s still adjusting to life in the world. Most days, she’s simply grateful to be living in Room 221 at the New Rosemont Hotel instead of a cell.

The rookies muddle through their first few cases, involving dog poisoning and purloined prosthetic limbs, among other things. Soon they’re ensnared in a tangled web of industrial espionage and corporate skulduggery, with a side of serial killing.

Sandlin’s noir style is a perfect match for her setting: working-class Beaumont at a particularly sour point in history. Vietnam and Watergate have left folks cranky and cynical.

Noir is tricky. Not every writer can pull it off without sounding hackneyed — just as not every guy can look cool wearing a fedora.

Sandlin’s strength is that she’s not trying to show off. The book clocks in at an economical 304 pages in part because the author doesn’t waste words on stuff that doesn’t matter. Everything she writes furthers her plot or develops her characters. She’s not the type to spend a page describing Delpha’s clothing right down to the buttons, trying to wow the reader with her command of synonyms.

That’s not to say her writing doesn’t wow. It does. Take, for example, this account of Delpha’s trip to the beach:

“The land was unclutching them, falling away to a blue seam that reached left to right as far as she could turn her head and past. It wasn’t possible to fit it all into her eyes at once, to inhale deep enough. Stunned, Delpha expanded, immense, uncontainable, taking in this horizon and its wide salt breath. Not long ago, she had wanted to be Room 221 in the New Rosemont Hotel. Now she beheld the live, immeasurable ocean, heard it, smelled it, knew she would not fit in that room in the same way again.”

Sandlin lives in Nebraska now, but she was born in Beaumont, and her feel for Texas is spot-on.

As is often the case, the plot relies on a coincidence or two. But Phelan and Wade are such winning characters, readers are unlikely to hold a grudge.

Don’t take the critic’s word for it. Check out “The Do-Right,” and see if you don’t find yourself reading passages aloud just for the sheer pleasure of it.
- Shawna Seed, October 17, 2015  Visit Website
The Beaumont Enterprise
“The book is alive, its people are living, and the city is its own messy self.”
Author transports you to 1973 Beaumont

Sit yourself on the edge of a bayou, cane pole in hand, and let author Lisa Sandlin cast a story for you. She might describe it this way:

Delpha Wade had returned to Beaumont in need of a job after spending 14 years in the women’s prison at Gatesville for manslaughter — a crime for which she had a good reason, but not good enough for the law to ignore. She scraped together enough of a presentation for a budding private investigator to take her on.

The year is 1973. It’s summer.

Tom Phelan had his fill of offshore rigs, having lost part of a finger in an accident — after all he’d been through in Vietnam as a medic.

He took out an ad in the local paper and Delpha showed up.

Into this setting, Lisa Sandlin’s new book takes off. The story is called “The Do-Right” a term for a lockup in which the inmates are told to “do right.”

Beaumont — the city itself — is very much a character in this noir novel of corruption, betrayal, morality and how it bends, but doesn’t break.

The population speaks the local vernacular, the places they go are real. The reader can hear the sounds, see the sights, droopy and sooty.

You can feel the air, swat the bugs, smell the humid sour sweetness.

You can revisit the J&J Steakhouse and its weird museum, "The Eye of the World," a carved confusion of the biblical and modern worlds.

You can stake out a crooked lawyer doing things he oughtn’t at a local hotel.

You can cruise on Concord Road in the night, spying drug addicts.

You can meet grande dames and not-so-grand broads as mysteries build and wasp nests get poked.

The story, released in October, is Sandlin’s fifth book. Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso commissioned the novel, which Sandlin completed in the summer of 2014.

Delpha lives in the New Rosemont Hotel, but it combines elements of the old Hotel Beaumont, said Sandlin.  

Her cover art is a photograph by Beaumont artist Keith Carter, a view from a hotel room that he titled "Blessing."

It’s a simple room with a bed, end table and window with a shade and string pull. It’s sparse, but the window is open. She’s back in the world, where there’s an outside.

Delpha is 32, having spent her life since the age of 18 in prison after plunging a knife into a man who was forcing himself on her. The part that irked law enforcement was how she had finished him off. A jury was unsympathetic.  

“I was young in the early 1970s,” Sandlin said, wanting to reflect that time in her life.

Sandlin is a 1969 graduate of French High School, which also was the setting of a previous work called "Message to the Nurse of Dreams," which was about the stirrings of public school integration and her friendship with the first black girl to attend an all-white campus.

Sandlin, who still has family in Beaumont, lives in Omaha and teaches a writer’s workshop at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Sandlin said downtown Beaumont is a perfect "noir" setting because of the old buildings and the memories of who populated the downtown streets when she was young.

She said her story turns on its characters.

While some writers might build their mystery stories from the end with a solution and trace back to the beginning to add atmosphere and trails to nowhere, Sandlin said she prefers to imagine where her characters are going and takes them places.

The book is alive, its people are living, and the city is its own messy self.

Will there be more of Delpha and Tom amid the inter-related cops, lawyers, refinery workers, wheelers, dealers and stealers?

Sandlin said she’s deep into another story but hopes to reveal more of a Beaumont still tangible from across the decades.
- Dan Wallach, November 27, 2015  Visit Website
Lone Star Literary Life
“The Do-Right is a satisfying and entertaining contribution to classic noir.”
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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