The cardinal sin in mystery reviewing is revealing too much of the plot. That’s not a danger with Joe Ide’s crime novels. It is humanly impossible to summarize his teeming, dizzying, ricocheting, madcap (and somewhat mad) story lines.
On the surface, the IQ novels appear to have little in common with Doyle’s tales that turn on the power of deduction. Unlike Holmes, Isaiah sometimes has to get physical with evildoers, and he also enjoys “getting physical” with beautiful women. Still, as an operative working on a shoestring budget and shut out of law enforcement databases, Isaiah’s greatest asset is, like Holmes’s, his brainpower. (His second greatest resource is the erratic assistance of a Watson-like sidekick named Dodson.) And, because Isaiah dropped out of high school, he, again, like Holmes, is mostly an autodidact, relying on his own scattershot reading and his firsthand knowledge of the streets for his continuing education.
But, even the smartest detective can get stumped. The bizarre mystery that kicks off “Hi Five,” the fourth novel in the IQ series, is so complicated that it strains what Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot called his “little grey cells.”
The gist of the case is this: An arms dealer named Angus Byrne reaches out to Isaiah because his daughter, Christiana, is accused of killing a customer in her Newport Beach made-to-order clothing store. (That customer is Tyler, her boyfriend, who also worked for Angus.) Isaiah refuses the job because he despises Angus. With his signature linguistic gusto, Isaiah thinks to himself: “The man was pestilence, a virus, a stinking glob of human offal. Making the smallest effort on his behalf would be like burying yourself under an outhouse. You’d never get the filth off.” Angus, however, threatens to break the hands of Isaiah’s new girlfriend, a violinist in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra. Seeing no way out, Isaiah drives to Christiana’s condo, a journey that inspires a sharp riff on the social geography of Southern California:
“The drive [to Newport Beach] from Long Beach was depressing, the transition from want to bountiful, from struggle to ease, from peril to relative safety. Isaiah wondered what algorithm of race, history, economics, politics, and law had led to a divide so deep and insoluble. Experts had explanations, but it was like describing the universe. Whatever your vantage point, there was so much more to wrap your head around.”
When Isaiah arrives, he discovers that Christiana is dealing with more problems than a looming murder charge. She suffers from what’s now called dissociative identity disorder. Christiana harbors multiple personalities, five of them to be exact: Jasper, for instance, is a tough teenager from Arizona; Marlene is a “party girl”; Pearl is so shy that when Isaiah questions her she reminds him of a “peasant girl questioned by the gestapo.” No one of her “alters” was present throughout the entire time the murder took place; therefore, Isaiah must corral all of these disparate — and, in some cases, feuding — personalities to cooperate in reconstructing what happened the night that Tyler was murdered.
This is but the central conundrum in a novel that’s bristling with them. In trademark style, Ide cultivates a variety of subplots: Isaiah’s romantic life grows vexed when the love of his life — Grace, an artist — returns to town; two vicious hit women — one, a former circus acrobat — begin trailing Isaiah, as does a stiletto-wielding goon nursing a grudge. Not only do story lines proliferate, but so, too, do points of view. What does it mean, for instance, when Christiana, after her initial meeting with Isaiah, thinks to herself: “If Isaiah succeeded one way, they [the alters] were home free. If he succeeded another way, they were doomed”? And, further thickening the narrative of “Hi Five” is that Ide, like one of his acknowledged mentors, Chester Himes, often presents events simultaneously, so chapters of this novel don’t always progress in time, but, rather, layer atop one another.
The end result of all Ide’s frenetic literary machinations, however, is a crime novel that gives readers a sense of the totality of life in all its possibility: comedy, violence, irrationality and heartbreak. It’s no longer a fresh observation to say that Ide is an original as a suspense writer, but, certainly, every novel he writes — including “Hi Five” — feels like a new invention.
Maureen Corrigan, who teaches literature at Georgetown University, is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air.”
By Joe Ide
Mulholland. 352 pp. $27.
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