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.

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