”The Bird Boys: A Delpha Wade and Tom Phelan Mystery” by Lisa Sandlin, Cinco Puntos Press, El Paso, 2019
Waking up in the hospital after near death from knife wounds, Miss Delpha Wade is the subject of a murder investigation of a serial killer. How this is possible is contextual. Set in East Texas oil country of Beaumont, 1970s justice system for ex-con woman is guilty until proven innocent.
Before “Orange is Black,” author Lisa Sandlin tapped the genre in her first book on Delpha, the award-winning, “The Do-Right.”
Delpha did 14 years in a Gatesville prison in Texas for the self-defense murder of one of the men raping her in 1959. Her parole officer, 6-foot-5-inch Joe Ford advised her on getting a job and staying out of prison — act and ask. Act like people want you to, and ask for what you need.
She needed a job, the only offer, other than for sex, was from an ex-roughneck, novice private investigator, Tom Phelan. She knew the ropes of getting things done, even to the point of barely escaping death by jabbing a whiskey bottle in the attacker’s throat and watching him die. Or finding out who done it through the rolodex and the phone book.
Both books paint stories through cigarette smoke of numerous characters all with the details of the various lives of an ex-con woman. Told through the vernacular voice equal to the “Sun Also Rises,” East Texas style, the ever moving plots portray a gritty, with all the grays, woman with an honor code trying, against heavy odds to get by.
Delpha is back at work after her lesson in money can buy you freedom justice, and if you’re sly enough to out think the district attorney. Tom and Delpha set out to solve other people’s problems. The first case is two brothers. One wants to find the other, who doesn’t want to be found. Sandlin leads the reader on twists and turns and for once in a mystery novel, a novel ending.
You cannot speed read Sandlin, the words are too rich. Like a multilayered Gulf Coast gumbo, you must savor each phrase. Even when Tom finds seafood it’s described as “a still life platter pretty as any bouquet: dollops of oysters, dollops of shells, disk of salmon topped by a fat little snapper, trailing stems of bright orange crab legs.” (page 156) Sandlin doesn’t just describe it — you smell it.
A complex mixture of words portray a plethora of Beaumont personalities. Some forgotten. A red-haired mystical gifted girl who sees what others don’t. And so it is with every scene, some found in other scenes.
Plots set in a Dodge Dart, cranky air condition, race, baseball number 713, real service stations and dope hauled ashore, presented as a noir in a clipped prose style. “Held out the keys to her ’55 Ford, too. Bus doesn’t take you to fishing holes.” (page 117)
“The Bird Boys” may be read independently, like having pecan pie without whipped cream. Eat the cream too, read them both. That’s the Beaumont way.