Killer Nashville Book of the Day

The Do-Right by Lisa Sandlin/ Reviewed by Joseph Borden


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Lisa Sandlin Credit: David Baker
Lisa Sandlin
Credit: David Baker

Delpha Wade, protagonist in Lisa Sandlin’s The Do-Right, is newly-paroled and in desperate need of a job, or else she will face the possibility of returning to prison where she spent fourteen years after killing one of her rapists. Cue Tom Phelan—veteran and ex-oil-rigger turned sleuth—a friend of Delpha’s parole officer who needs a competent secretary for his burgeoning P.I. firm. At first glance, the two appear an unlikely pair, perhaps. But, throughout the course of the novel, they form a partnership that is effective, and entirely incumbent on their respective backgrounds.

The Do-Right is set against the backdrop of the Watergate scandal. In classic noir fashion, the novel is threaded throughout with testaments to dirty, rotten humanity—such as the omnipresent reminder of Nixon in the height of his dishonesty, and an entire country victim to a sense of betrayal. These reminders imbue the novel with an undertone of disillusionment while juxtaposing it against harrowing investigations of blue-collar crime in Texas by our protagonists at Phelan Investigations.

Sandlin makes fantastic use of familiar, archetypal characters—the neophyte sleuth, the woman with the troubled past, etcetera, etcetera—and brings new life into them by crafting narrative that, past the surface of an exciting detective story, seems to search for a sense of grace or forgiveness. Delpha, haunted by her years spent on the inside and the memory of her rape, longs for a fresh start. “Something different than anything I had before,” she says when asked what she’s saving up for. But when Delpha comes face-to-face with her surviving rapist on a fishing excursion, she realizes a fresh start might not be possible.

Phelan, for his part, spends much of the novel learning the ropes—often berating himself for novice mistakes. Though inexperienced, the P.I. has a knack for sniffing out clues. Most importantly, perhaps, he has a thirst for seeing an investigation all the way through, and an ability to leave no stone unturned—possibly at great cost.

This novel has it all—murder, mystery, abuse, corporate espionage. Take your pick. The prose reads like movie stills from an old detective flick. It gives snapshots of each moment spent in the grungy, infected world Sandlin has created. The language is sparse and precise; the syntax is musical. Sandlin shows a mastery for crafting dialog, as well, brilliantly utilizing the expository possibilities of genuine, human conversation.

Lisa Sandlin’s The Do-Right is something akin to a rusted nail through the foot: it’s dirty, it hurts, and it’ll have you jumping up and down—or possibly just on the floor. Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan are as lovable a duo as any in noir fiction, and they bring a dynamism to the familiar archetypes that can so easily grow stale.

Will Phelan Investigations survive? Can Delpha live in peace with her rapist still alive? These are just a few of the mysteries you’ll have to solve yourself.

Joseph Borden has a B.A. in creative writing from Tusculum College. He currently lives in Lyles, TN, where he spends most of his time reading, writing, and obsessing over his dog.

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