THE DO-RIGHT (referring to a slang term for prison, we’re told) is Lisa Sandlin’s first novel. Before that she had established a considerable reputation as a poet, and her overly showy language is one of my few complaints with this unusual and affecting thriller.
The story opens in May of 1973, as the unfolding Watergate scandal obsesses most of the US. In Beaumont, Texas, northeast of Houston, former oilfield worker Tom Phelan has just put out his shingle as a private eye, and he gets talked into hiring newly paroled Delpha Wade as his secretary. Delpha has just served 14 years for killing a man that raped her, and her single-minded determination to stay out of prison, along with the intensity of her experience of the minutia of her freedom, make her one of the more compelling characters in recent crime fiction.
Phelan’s first case arrives, coincidentally, at the same time that Wade does. It looks to be a textbook divorce job, complete with a hot-sheet motel stakeout, but it has deeper roots that Phelan can’t keep himself from digging at. In other hands, that one case would have been enough for one book, but Sandlin keeps the phone ringing and the clients lining up, straining credulity a bit and muddying the waters of the main plot.
THE DO-RIGHT is the first in a series, and I’ll definitely be back for more. Phelan is smart, sympathetic, and believably human. Wade is equally smart, and also ambitious and vulnerable. The setting, both geographically and temporally, is vivid and full of potential. As in the best mysteries, the real concern is not who done it, but what the hell is going on here? In all these ways, THE DO-RIGHT is a thoroughly satisfying novel.