It’s 1973 in Lisa Sandlin’s debut novel, The Do-Right: Watergate is ramping up to its first court date; Hank Aaron is within spitting distance of Babe Ruth’s record; and in Beaumont, Delpha Wade has just been released from prison after serving 14 years for killing her rapist.
While scouring Beaumont for employment, Delpha meets newly minted private eye Tom Phelan, a veteran of both the Vietnam War and a Gulf oil rig, where he lost a finger and decided to pursue a quieter line of work. Despite serious reservations about hiring a felon, even a young, female one (Delpha’s only 32, though she acts older), Tom takes her on after she steps in to help him deal with a new customer.
As backdrop for her story, Sandlin portrays a seedy Beaumont, full of small-time weirdos and sinister conspiracies, but also kind-hearted Texans trying to help each other out. Delpha earns her board by looking after a woman’s aging mother, and it’s her parole officer who calls in a favor with Tom to get her in the door at Phelan Investigations.
These are quite humble beginnings for a pairing who might have a whole series of adventures ahead of them, and the cases they take on are likewise garden-variety. Instead of a single long, snaking plotline, Sandlin, a Beaumont native, gives Delpha and Tom a handful of smaller, simpler jobs that weave together loosely.
In one, Tom spends half a day watching to see if a woman’s neighbors are poisoning her dog. In another, he snaps a few pictures of a man with his young mistress, at the request of a bizarre woman who claims to be the man’s wife. Later he’s tasked with retrieving a stolen prosthetic leg.
The Do-Right is as much Delpha/Tom origin story as mystery, but that is by no means a bad thing. Sandlin’s evocative style reminds me of no one so much as James Lee Burke; she writes stylishly and with as much rich detail as Burke, except she focuses more on the relationships between her characters than on the settings around them.
One such character-defining moment happens when Delpha meets Ida Rae, a minor villain. In a few short sentences, Sandlin classifies Ida as a 40-something trying desperately to look younger. Delpha grudgingly tells her she does look younger, and here’s the response, from Delpha’s perspective:
The woman skated over on stocking feet, boots flapping, and attempted to hug Delpha, tipped some gin onto her blouse. “Oops! Thank you, sweetie pie. You and me’ll be friends. Will you be my friend, please?” [Ida Rae’s] head tilted to the side as she smiled, in a pose that must have been adorable thirty-five years ago.
That’s a hard-working paragraph. It draws Ida Rae almost completely, in great detail for a very minor character, and it ably tells of Delpha’s distaste for vanity. Tom and Delpha’s relationship is sketched out more languidly. Small moments between case — such as a decision about whether to print “Thanks for your business” at the bottom of their invoices — inform these characters every bit as much as the more intense scenes, such as when they’re tracking down a pedophile who’s snatching up children.
Delpha and Tom tackle each situation with a stolid small-town, can-do attitude, reminiscent of an old-school farmer who, instead of calling a vet to help with a bad birth, grabs the calf’s head and pulls. For example, after rescuing a boy from the pedophile’s house Tom bluntly asks, “He rape you, Ricky?” Throughout the novel, such darkness runs below the surface but never becomes Sandlin’s central focus. She shows a rare ability to portray distasteful elements of life — and even evil — without making that sourness the identity of her story, thereby offering a refreshing perspective.
Her plot, however, leaves something to be desired. The handful of cases she gives Tom and Delpha fits the profile of a PI’s first few weeks in business. But the way the cases are connected to each other is too coincidental. Even Tom questions what all the coincidence means. “These stories don’t have morals,” Delpha replies. “They’re just things that happened.”
For better or worse, Sandlin eschews traditional plot in favor of just having things happen to her characters. In this first novel of what may be many to come, Tom and Delpha’s budding relationship and the initial stumbling of their fledgling business buoy the story through gaps in its plot. I’m not sure whether that will be true for future installments, but I’ll be watching with interest.