The Bird Boys – An Excerpt

A Delpha Wade and
Tom Phelan Mystery

  Genre: Gentle Noir / Mystery / Women Sleuths
Date of Publication: August 20, 2019
Number of Pages: 306
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The new novel from award-winning author Lisa Sandlin catches up with the almost-murdered secretary Delpha Wade (The Do-Right, 2015, set in 1973) as she’s released from a hospital in order to be tucked into the back seat of a police cruiser. Her boss, P. I. Tom Phelan, sets out to spring her. He needs her back in his investigation business, where he’ll soon be chasing a skulking grand larcenist and plotting how to keep a ganjapreneur out of the grabby hands of a brand new agency, the D.E.A. Delpha digs through old records and knocks on strange doors to unravel the dangerous case of two brothers with beaucoup aliases—verifying that sometimes truth is not true, but murder is always murder.
Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
“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
“Sandlin’s sequel soars on the wings of its spot-on evocation of a time and place and its utterly compelling central characters… A first-rate series crying for word-of-mouth support.”
Kirkus, Starred Review
“Proving that anything old can be new in the right, talented hands, Sandlin has crafted an outstanding series that readers will want to follow and savor.”
Robert Faires, Austin Chronicle
“I confess that as a Beaumonster who remembers that city in the early seventies, the book has a special appeal; Sandlin gets so many details just right. But you don’t have to have lived there to be captivated by The Bird Boys. Its characters, wit, exquisite prose, and sense of redemption are so richly crafted that they’ll stick to most anyone like, well, a shirt to your skin on an August afternoon in Beaumont.”



Excerpt from Chapter Nine

Of The Bird Boys

By Lisa Sandlin

Dolly was eighteen when she came in, like Delpha, and not full of rage as Delpha had been, but full of guilt.  She had answered her mother’s screams for help by swinging a loaded kerosene heater at the back of her step-father’s neck. If he’d been making off with his wife’s purse or Pontiac, Dolly could have walked—by using deadly force to protect property. If she’d swung with less fright, if she’d just conked him, she’d have been sent home with her mother. But the man was only beating on his wife, not stealing from her, and in court the mother recanted. Why, she’d never urged her daughter to burn George with the heater. She was a loyal wife, you ask any of her neighbors. George, he’d a been sorry later, bless his heart, he always was sorry. She certainly didn’t mean for Dolly to set fire to him like she did . . .

The Defense leapt howling onto his polished Florsheims and tried to sandbag her with her Grand Jury testimony but the sobbing witness overran him like a hard rain overruns a ditch. The defendant sat stricken, her wide mouth downturned. Once the judge banished the sodden mother from the stand, the State of Texas went to town on Dolly.

Or that was the story.

Aileen Kirk looked nothing like Dolly Honeysett. Inside prison, Dolly’s white, five foot one, pudgy body faded behind other inmates’. She occupied no fixed spot in the chow hall, only nomadic outposts on the peripheries. Her upper lip was long, her nose a small knob high above it. Her brown hair, rubber-banded into a rat-tail, started off the morning flattening a pair of prominent ears that soon fought their way to freedom. Who came in with Dolly Honeysett were three other women and the good fairy Glinda, and it was maybe six months before anyone put that together. Nobody wanted to, did they? Glinda, named by an early recipient of her magic, was a positive force in their unit of Gatesville, even if you couldn’t see her. Because you couldn’t see her. Glinda divined a need and delivered tokens to the poor in heart. These items were puny and a surprise and their juju all the stronger for that.

A woman whose parole had been denied slumped back to her cell to find just inside the bars, a Baby Ruth resting on the smooth surface of her special favorite, a banana Moon Pie. A month later, one going up for a parole hearing and climbing the walls about it discovered three packs of Luckys. Wasn’t her brand but the omen heartened her. Maybe a couple months after that, a laundry worker losing her looks and her grip picked up a squat pink bottle of Oil of Olay. A young one, 23, worried about her ten-year-old son, explosive about her lack of telephone time, found stamps and three four-packs of envelopes. Write him letters? Well, maybe. If somebody would spell for her.

These were items anyone could buy at the commissary or receive from a relative. Not like a lacy negligee or a ride in a Cadillac convertible or an honest embrace. Something like that, though. This was all during— Delpha had to concentrate here —1965 or ‘66, when they got used to hearing that name, Vietnam, on the radio. When one of the Beatles said the four of them were more popular than Jesus—didn’t that remark get some dedicated chow-hall discussion? The gifts went on through 1967, the year that started off with the spirit of dough-faced Jack Ruby whistling past the bars of Death Row.

Conversations about Glinda, like conversations about lottery-winning, were pleasurable in themselves. The speculation, the secret glances, the proposing and dismissal of names. People started calling out to Glinda that they wanted some Fritos and bean dip, some Dragon’s Blood nail polish, an ice cold Grapette, then they got crazy and wanted parole and a Thunderbird car, a snuggle-date with Rock Hudson. Women cried out for everything impossible. After an upsurge of such craziness, Glinda did not come for a long time, and speculation grew that whoever she was had left Gatesville. Then she came again, and once that news had circulated, people seemed relieved, content to hush-hush her name.

In summer, in the scorching middle of it—the coarse white uniforms weighed like wet concrete on their backs and thighs, and the news outside was that the pretty boxer Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, could be headed for prison—the warden summoned Mary Buell, a black inmate, so that two Marines could notify her that her son had been killed in battle. Afterward, a chaplain ministered to her in her cell. A funeral could not be arranged until the body arrived, no certain time was given, and there was no consoling the shrieking mother.

Had her son died in a car wreck or a forklift accident, her lack of consolation would have remained solely her business, and her shrieks the burden of her neighbors. But Ernest J. Johnson was the warden then, a veteran who’d been frozen, starved, and shot at a place called St. Vith, and when an African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Temple volunteered to hold an interim service, the warden arranged it. To Ernest Johnson one thing only divided men more surely than skin color, and that was Semper Fi. Two other inmates had sons in the army, and a question meandered to the warden. Could the funeral service be opened to the unit?

Friends of the bereaved took the right-side pews in the stifling chapel, and white inmates, including the two other servicemen’s mothers, filed into the left. One of those must have been a Catholic because she stayed on her knees the whole time, though there was no cushioned rail to kneel on. A Gatesville funeral home had donated fans, and these were passed out to all and gratefully used. Not until the pews had settled did the mother of the fallen Marine advance down the aisle in prison white, her face gleaming with tears and sweat. Mary Buell was supported by her two sisters, accompanied by the young soldier’s teenage sister and his small brother. From the first step onto the chapel linoleum, there were wails and weeping and folding and contorting, thrusting arms and beseeching the Lord.

Looks passed among the inmates on the left side. Many of them had not seen black women freely carry on like this, it was a strange window they were seeing through. Ridicule rose up. Most swallowed it. One girl who sniggered took a swift elbow to the ribs. Though this greeting of death was different than what most of them were used to, they sweated in silence. A lot of women in there had sons. Didn’t matter if they were two-year-old babies. Or six years old or ten. The white inmates saw a mother beset with the mother of all fears, and it had come-to-be, and they feared it for themselves. A moan broke out from the chapel’s left side, mingling with those from the right. Then another.

Delpha had been to one funeral: her mother’s. That was a tight-jawed affair. This was something else, but what? The black women and girl, the brotherless boy, made their way toward the altar as though barefoot on shattered glass, and Delpha distinguished two things: the suffering of grief and the expressing of grief. Both were real—she read that in Mary Buell’s murdered eyes, in the sisters’ clutching and entreating. The griefs were intertwined, as if Agony itself were crawling down the aisle, one bloody body with many arms and voices.

Afterward, when Mary Buell was escorted to her cell, she found just outside the bars a jar of the flowers that grew haphazard around the prison garden: milkweed. A gallon glass jar, de-labeled and buffed to a crystal sparkle. Its tin lid was poked with holes, the jar filled with a green leafy stalk sprouting purplish-pink florets. Mary picked up the jar. Jostled, a Monarch butterfly arched gold-red wings and flitted to another floret. An inmate heard Mary murmur that her son was found. She lifted her voice. Her Clayton was not lost in a foreign land, he had waked up in the mansion of the Lord.

To Mary from Glinda.

That was how they caught her. An inmate near the garden had been struck by the sight of a girl with a yard of cheesecloth, creeping and pouncing, chasing and swiping like a lunatic. She didn’t know the girl’s name was Dolly Honeysett, she called her “the one with the Dumbo ears.”

Soon enough, some girls cornered Dolly. Was she the one who gave people stuff? Was she Glinda?

Dolly shook her head.

Hit on the shoulder she said,





Then yes.

Why on earth?

Dolly shrugged.

Why did she do that?

Backed up against a wall, she stammered maybe because it helped some.

Some what?

What did she mean, helped?

Helped what?

Well, because she had to do something to make up for misunderstanding her mother. For burning George’s head. Her prayers were dry. The only thing she could figure to do was give something to another person who needed it. Certain people, it was just large in their face what they needed. After she left her offerings, Dolly had found that, for about as long as a kitchen match would burn, she felt clear.

There was no magic in this answer. Some people didn’t understand it. Other people did. But nobody talked about Glinda anymore, not like when she was a mystery. Whichever sad people received candy or Lipton tea bags or pink Suave shampoo mumbled thanks to Dolly, and that was that. Until—wasn’t too long after Otis Redding had plane-crashed, was it, Christmas, 1967— Dolly’s trial attorney with the polished Florsheims, his legal vanity torpedoed by Mrs. Honeysett’s image-burnishing perjury, assassinated the woman’s character in a parole hearing. He managed to spring the obedient girl who’d swung the gas heater.

Goodbye, Glinda, goodbye.



Lisa Sandlin is the author of The Do-Right, winner of the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America and the Hammett Prize from the International Association of Crime Writers. Her new mystery thriller The Bird Boys is set in 1973 in the same town she was born, Beaumont, Texas. Her previous books are The Famous Thing About Death and Message to the Nurse of Dreams, Cinco Puntos Press; In the River Province, SMU Press; and You Who Make the Sky Bend, Pinyon Publishing.



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August 20-30, 2019
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