Delpha Wade & Tom Phelan

Created by Lisa Sandlin

“Still got nine fingers left. Aim to keep them”
— Tom, when asked why he quit working on oil rigs and became a P.I.

Let’s get this straight. TOM PHELAN is the private eye, and MISS DELPHA WADE is his secretary, but she gets top billing on the cover?

What’s going on here?

Okay, neither of them’s exactly a spring chicken, but they ain’t virgins, either. Tom survived a stint in Vietnam and a gig working on the oil rig off the Texas coast that cost him one of his fingers, but he’s still pretty much a rookie as a detective (the ink on his license is barely dry). Delpha’s been around, as well (she’s an ex-con), but still…

A stroll through the pages of the series debut, The Do-Right (2015), however, puts everything in perspective. Delpha’s official occupation description may read as “clerical,”  but she’s clearly the dominant force here — it’s all Tom can do to keep up.

Delpha’s not just any ex-con — she’s just been released from Gatesville, the state pen, after serving fourteen years in prison for killing one of the men who raped her (the other one got away), so she’s seen how the justice system really works. But nobody seems in a hurry to hire her, until Tom gives her a shot.

Winner of the 2015 Dashiell Hammett Prize and a 2016 Shamus Award  for Best First Private Eye Novel, The Do-Right is just a gripping read; a literary tour-de-force that nails its setting to the friggin’ wall.

It’s 1973, and Beaumont is a small, blue-collar town on the Texas coast, jammed up near Louisiana, clinging to a past that’s more myth than fact, where pretty much everything, including the law, is owned and run by Big Oil. Tom figures running a small detective agency shouldn’t be too difficult, though, as long as he and Delpha keep their heads low.

Sandlin’s hammered a spike through the seventies as well, everything from the Watergate hearings to unfortunate fashion decisions. And the dialogue? It just sizzles. Sandlin has an easy-going way with words, dropping bon mots all over the place, but never sounding forced or portentous — almost immediately drawing comparisons to people like Elmore Leonard and Joe Lansdale — she’s that good.

Watching the chemistry between Tom and Delpha develop is just a joy. By the 2019 sequel, The Bird-Boys, Delpha’s increasingly acting more like a partner than a secretary. Though, being a good ol’ southern boy, he still refers to her as “Miss Wade.”

Keep an eye on this series, folks.

Lisa Sandlin was born in Beaumont, and her short story “Phelan’s First Case,” which introduced Tom and Delpha, was anthologized in Lone Star Noir in 2010. The Do-Right was her first full-length mystery. She currently lives and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska, and summers in Santa Fe, New Mexico.


  • “Brimming with hard-boiled dialogue and poetic insights alike, The Bird Boys is a deeply humane and provocative book that builds relentlessly to its chilling conclusion.”
    — Joy Castro
  • “What makes this crime novel soar is the humanity and humility of its main characters. It is by turns exciting, tender, suspenseful, observant, and gently funny. Readers will eagerly await the next installment.”
    — Booklist, Starred Review, on The Do-Right



Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. And a tip of the fedora to Hans Jürgen Weinle.

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