Book Review: The Bird Boys Brings Crime to 1970s Beaumont
Lisa Sandlin's characters try to solve the mysteries of themselves
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., July 19, 2019
Richard Nixon doesn't actually appear in Lisa Sandlin's new book, but his presence is felt, like a sweat-soaked shirt that sticks to your skin on a humid August afternoon in Beaumont. If that reference sounds awfully specific, it's because the muggy Southeast Texas refinery town is the setting for The Bird Boys, as it was for Sandlin's first novel featuring the nascent investigative team of Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan. And as Sandlin picks up here just where that book – the 2015 Dashiell Hammett Prize winner The Do-Right – left off, it's still late summer 1973, which means the talk of the nation is Watergate. What did the President know, and when did he know it?
It's a national moment of questioning, not only what we've been told and what our leaders have really been up to but also what we stand for and who we are. It's a time of digging into the past to uncover secrets and truth. That's a potent backdrop for a mystery, especially one in which the detectives are working out who they are as individuals and as a team. Wade, recently released from Gatesville Women's Prison and still feeling her way on the outside, is learning that she has a real knack for investigation, which leads her boss, shabby shamus Phelan, to realize that he's hired much more than a secretary. Sandlin teases us with flashes of attraction between the two, but it's the mutual respect that flowers as they handle clients and piece together clues that she makes the true cement of their relationship.
Their cases here involve nothing so grand as White House corruption and cover-ups. In terms of high crimes and misdemeanors, they lean toward the latter – as when Phelan goes undercover in a big-box department store to find out who's stealing stock (a set-piece in which Sandlin's considerable gifts for comic description get full play: "Housewares was Mabel, a fifty-five-ish saleswoman who wore her dyed, flat-black hair in a time-warp pompadour with sausage curls, platform shoes with a big painted toe sticking out the peephole, and a scalloped apron over her dress. Canteen girl from The Twilight Zone.") But one seemingly innocent case – finding the estranged brother of an extravagant, elderly gent from New Orleans (a real refugee from a Tennessee Williams play) – turns out to be less about binding old wounds than settling old scores with blood to be spilled.
The story is set months before Nixon utters the fateful phrase "I am not a crook," but the line still seems to belong in The Bird Boys; you can hear it being said by almost anyone here, though not as a deceptive dodge like Tricky Dick. These characters would say it and believe it, no matter how illicit or reprehensible their actions. In their minds, they do what they do because they have to, to survive or because they were wronged, or because they have no other choice. Sandlin doesn't write villains; she writes humans, complicated and contradictory and tough to pigeonhole. That's much of what makes The Bird Boys, like The Do-Right, so memorable. Its people are mysteries, sometimes to themselves. That's nowhere more true than with Delpha Wade, as she strives to solve the riddle of who she is outside of a cell. She may be someone strong, someone smart, someone good. Her pursuit of her identity is as compelling as the novel's larger mystery.
I confess that as a Beaumonster who remembers that city in the early Seventies, the book has a special appeal; Sandlin gets so many details just right. But you don't have to have lived there to be captivated by The Bird Boys. Its characters, wit, exquisite prose, and sense of redemption are so richly crafted that they'll stick to most anyone like, well, a shirt to your skin on an August afternoon in Beaumont.
The Bird Boysby Lisa Sandlin
Cincos Puntos Press, 306 pp., $16.95