In Sandlin’s first novel, The Do-Right, Delpha Wade, newly released from Gatesville Women’s Prison after serving 14 years for manslaughter, goes to work for Tom Phelan, who has just opened a detective agency in Beaumont, Tex.
Why did you decide to start the story in 1973?
I wanted to use the ’70s. There was never any question of my being able to write credible techie sabotage à la Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, but I could make Delpha handle a Selectric and a 10-key. Once I decided on 1973, events just jumped into the book: Watergate especially, with its dramatic lies and endless speculation. I also included references to Vietnam and Hank Aaron’s run-up to Babe Ruth’s home run record.
What do you most fondly recall of Beaumont, where you grew up? And what is your least pleasant memory of it?
Fondly: going to the beach, about 60 miles away, bobbing in the waves in an inner tube, dodging the jellyfish, riding on the Galveston ferry. I gave Delpha and Isaac, the college kid with whom she becomes involved, a sweet interlude so they could enjoy a day there as much as I used to. My least favorite memory might be Driver’s Ed in August in a Rambler without AC.
What kind of research did you do regarding Gatesville, aka the Do-Right?
I didn’t read much about Gatesville specifically—just its layout, units, numbers, the unsurprising fact that isolation causes the greatest hardship. Personal predilection told me that being around so many people all the time would likewise be awful. My grandparents lived in Gatesville for some years, and I spent time there in the summer—hot as a firecracker, chiggers, horned toads.
The cases that turn up for Tom and Delpha range from serious conspiracies to absurdist scenarios. Was it always your intention to include a humorous element in The Do-Right?
I didn’t plan to include humor; my head just works that way. What I did plan was that, since Phelan was brand-new as a private eye, he would get small jobs from individual clients rather than from large institutions. That seemed logical. The little jobs lend themselves to more peculiarity.
In one of the many subplots, Delpha cares for 100-year-old Jesse Spier. Did you draw from real life for this character?
I had a grandmother who lived to 101, so I’ve seen that age up close, and I worked hospice for three years.
The steamy romance between Delpha and Isaac is yet another of your unconventional elements. Those sex scenes are quite persuasive. Why do you think it is that so many crime fiction authors fail in this area?
Not a clue.