Joe Ide, one of this year’s more unlikely first novelists, has produced one of its most enjoyable, offbeat thrillers.
Ide (pronounced E-day), who is 58, is a bit late to take up the fiction game. He has said that he finds inspiration in his colorful past: He’s Japanese American and grew up in an African American section of South Central Los Angeles. In a biographical sketch included with “IQ” he recalls the neighborhood in terms of run-down houses, pool halls, bars, drug deals, hookers, crime and rampant gangs. He didn’t like school but made it through college. He tried teaching high school but found his students obnoxious, whereupon he bounced from job to job until he took up screenwriting, without success.
Finally he set out to write a novel about a youngster he says is much like his early self and — Bingo! — here’s this sometimes scary, often whimsical, off-the-wall delight.
The letters IQ are the initials of the book’s African American hero, Isaiah Quintabe. We see him in 2005, as a teenager, and 2013, in his 20s. In the early scenes, he seems destined for college — tests rate him “near genius” — but after his beloved older brother is killed by a hit-and-run driver, IQ quits high school, searches for his brother’s killer and finally, angrily, turns to crime.
He’s good at it because he’s smart. He and a partner break into stores in the middle of the night, move in and out far more quickly than the police can arrive, and find safe ways to dispose of the loot. Unfortunately, the partner is a fool we fear will land IQ in prison before he regains his senses.
When we revisit IQ in his 20s, he has been reborn as an “unlicensed and underground” private detective in South Central. People come to him with problems the police won’t touch but that IQ — a big fan of Sherlock Holmes — solves with Holmes-style analysis.
One day he’s offered big money to protect a celebrated rapper called Black the Knife — Cal to his friends. Someone is trying to kill the rapper, probably someone working for his estranged wife, Noelle. Their once-torrid romance is over: “At a Thanksgiving dinner, Cal cooked Noelle’s Stella McCartney shoulder bag in the microwave and she slapped him with a turkey leg.” She says of her ex: “He’s part megalomaniac and part pervert. If he’s not telling you how great he is he’s trying to get you to do something nasty.”
We’re treated to Cal’s rap lyrics, which are clever and mostly unprintable. The superstar has sunk deep into drugs and depression and rarely leaves his mansion: “Cal was bloated, unshaven, his cornrows undone.” He glimpses salvation in a book that tells him happiness can be found by ridding oneself of pointless possessions. Inspired, Cal makes a huge pile of jewelry, a white ermine Cossack hat, a python-skin bomber jacket, sharkskin cowboy boots, a full-length overcoat made from six endangered cheetah hides and other luxury goods and sets it ablaze, muttering, “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. ” Alas, his bonfire brings not happiness but the police.
Cal’s refusal to leave home has made it impossible for a professional hit man called Skip to shoot him from afar. However, Skip raises pit bulls and has bred a 130-pound monster called Goliath that he sends racing into Cal’s home. IQ routs the creature, whereupon Skip sets out to kill him, too.
Strange characters populate the novel. IQ is being pursued by a stripper who was once crowned Miss Big Meaty Burger and offers to trade sex for an introduction to a rapper she thinks can make her a Kardashian-style star. (“You’re looking for a baby daddy and you know that’s not me,” he tells her.) We meet a hapless reporter who is assigned to write about a pig that could say “I love you.” Later, covering a fire, “she broke a heel and had to interview the fire captain barefoot and stepped on an anthill.” IQ is menaced by a surly drug lord who tells his bodyguard, “Terminate this peon with prejudice.”
It’s a mad world that late-blooming Joe Ide has brought forth from his past, a spicy mix of urban horror, youthful striving and show-business absurdity. His IQ is an original and welcome creation.
Patrick Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Washington Post.
By Joe Ide
Mulholland. 336 pp. $26