Book Review: Women of Mystery

Investigating the latest "persons of interest" in Texas' literary crime scene

Women of Mystery

The Do-Right

by Lisa Sandlin
Cinco Puntos Press, 306 pp., $16.95 (paper)

I spent a fair amount of my childhood in Beaumont. I don't anymore – the grandfather I visited then has passed, and my grandmother has relocated to the town where she started married life with him – but my elementary, middle school, and high school years came with the guarantee of at least a week of summer east. You'd drive away from Austin and watch the land grow flatter, the houses get squatter, the trees grow taller. The light would shift to something a little more muted, the air grow heavier with sea salt, the accents from clerks behind the counter at gas stations get a little less twang-y and a little more Mason-Dixon line-y. You'd have to hold your nose for a couple of miles when you hit the chemical refinery zone. The inscrutability of a place like Beaumont – a former boomtown (first in mills, then oil, then in war contracts in the Forties), a point of contact between interior Texas and the Old South, a place haunted by its history of segregation and race riots – why, it begs for a noir, and Lisa Sandlin delivers a gem of one with The Do-Right.

It's 1973, and Delpha Wade has just been released from prison after serving 14 years for killing one of the men who raped her. Through composure and persistence, Delpha secures a position as a secretary for Tom Phelan, ex-roughneck and military vet, who is opening an office as a private eye. The two make an unsentimental and gutsy pair of investigators who tackle cases that are by turns amusing and harrowing.

As in the best works of Chandler and Hammett, Sandlin uses the set-pieces of a hardboiled crime novel to get at poignant observations about human nature: how much one can and cannot change, how far the circumstances of birth can go to determine the trajectory of a life. Sandlin is more compassionate than either of those gentlemen of the genre: The Do-Right is as much the story of Delpha's halting return to the world outside of prison as it is a series of satisfying twists and turns (and there are some beautifully executed surprises throughout). Sandlin's atmospheric language, the way she finds the regionalism without ever verging into mockery, and her two leads, both banged up by life and a little world-weary but never cruel: There are more than enough reasons to pour yourself a bourbon and visit Beaumont, if only through The Do-Right.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 36 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More crime fiction
<i>Murder Ballads</i>
Murder Ballads
This blues-infused crime thriller suggests a number of Dangerous Things to Do Outside Shreveport Until You’re Dead

Wayne Alan Brenner, Nov. 24, 2017

Gross In
Gross In
Is any writer in Austin as revolting and entertaining as Andrew Hilbert?

François Pointeau, April 22, 2016

More Arts Reviews
<i>The City of Brass</i> by S.A. Chakraborty
The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty
This debut fantasy novel is appealing, in part because it draws on legends of the Arab world for its magic

Elizabeth Cobbe, March 2, 2018

Esther's Follies: The Laughs, the Gossip, and the Story Behind Texas' Most Celebrated Comedy Troupe
Esther's Follies: The Laughs, the Gossip, and the Story Behind Texas' Most Celebrated Comedy Troupe
In his history of Esther's, author Jesse Sublett follows the flow of four decades of frivolity

Robert Faires, Dec. 1, 2017

More by Rosalind Faires
Celeste Ng Loves Independent Bookstores
Celeste Ng Loves Independent Bookstores
The author of Little Fires Everywhere helps us prep for Independent Bookstore Day

April 27, 2018

Moontower 2018 Reviews: A Comic a Day
Moontower 2018 Reviews: A Comic a Day
A schooling in stand-up from Notaro, Haddish, and more

April 24, 2018

KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

crime fiction, women authors, Lisa Sandlin

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
AC Daily, Events and Promotions, Luvdoc Answers

Breaking news, recommended events, and more

Official Chronicle events, promotions, and giveaways

Updates for SXSW 2018

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle