The place is South Central Los Angeles, an area known in popular culture for, among other things, the historic Watts riots, the Rodney King riots, Hood films and other movies such as the first of the Lethal Weapon series, Training Day and Dark Blue, and for being the childhood home of Venus and Serena Williams.
The time oscillates between 2006 and 2013: two transformative years in the life of Isaiah Quintabe, the IQ of the novel’s title.
The alphabetical pun is, of course, intentional. In a neighbourhood where street smarts are the only intellectual currency, the versatility of Isaiah’s fierce mind is often unnoticed and usually underestimated.
Because author Joe Ide’s (pronounced ee-day) razor sharp first novel is classified as a detective and murder mystery, what the reader expects is a dark and violent story in which race relations and conflict with the forces of law and order are the bleak recurring themes.
So it comes as a surprise to discover on the back flap of the dust jacket that Isaiah’s creator has been a devotee of Sherlock Holmes stories since childhood, enthralled by the idea that “a person could face the world and vanquish his enemies with just his intelligence […]”
Ide wastes no time establishing his protagonist’s presence. By page thirty-five, Isaiah has caught the scent of an abduction in progress—a petite teenager yanked off the sidewalk and thrown into a van by a grotesque and unnerving predator—tracked the perpetrator within minutes, engaged in an action-movie-worthy car chase, and finally stopped the kidnapper with the help—and pint point precision—of a Determinator HX Grenade Launcher. Everyone survives.
As beginnings go, this one is pretty terrific and not very Sherlockian, which suited me just fine. Much has been made of the author’s admiration of Holmes and it’s certainly true that Isaiah prefers the use of brain over brawn whenever possible. There’s even a giant killer dog—in IQ’s case, a monstrous pit bull named Goliath —who plays a central role in the plot, evoking the hound of the Baskervilles of Conan Doyle’s story. But I couldn’t be bothered with searching for any other parallels or tips of the hat.
IQ is a stand-alone marvel. The world of South Central Los Angeles that Ide brings to life is certainly as dangerous and violent as anything I could imagine, and it’s the voices and language of rappers that provide the soundtrack of life there. It’s a gangland where gangstas rule, and Ide, who grew up there and has a fantastic ear for dialogue, does a brilliant job bringing to life its vernacular and its culture.
Most striking is how cut-off this world is from life beyond—how self-enclosed. Even its economy, made up mostly of small shops, bars, fast food joints and drug squats, is self-sustaining or struggling to be. Ide accentuates this by keeping almost all outsiders from his narrative, with the exception of a psychopathic hitman named Skip, brought in from a town called Fergus, a place described as “[…] a desert truck stop on Highway 58 between Barstow and Boron”.
We soon sense that despite his genius, Isaiah will probably live and die in the neighbourhood where he was born, and I think he believes this too. We also learn very early on that contrary to Sherlock Holmes, Isaiah’s clientele is cash poor. Life is struggle.
Why, then, does he persist in his detective work? What drives him?
By alternating between two timelines—Isaiah’s life in 2006 and his life in 2013—Ide creates an extra puzzle to solve.
The first provides his backstory. In 2006, at the age of just 17, Isaiah—whose parents both died a few years earlier in shattering circumstances—loses his beloved older brother Marcus, who since that tragedy had become his surrogate parent, his mentor, provider and, truthfully, the centre of his life, grooming him for a stellar future. Lightning strikes again when Marcus is crushed to pieces in a hit and run accident while crossing the street, with Isaiah standing right next to him.
This is the traumatic event that rips the super-gifted boy’s life off its hinges. From this point on, Isaiah’s former existence is over—he’s forced to drop out of high school—and every waking moment becomes a dance along the knife edge of letting himself die of grief and anger or surviving on his own, fuelled by a desire to track his brother’s killer and avenge his death.
Many of the characters who will resurface in 2013 are introduced here, the most memorable of which is Dodson, a scamming, charming, unbelievably exasperating, laugh-out-loud funny conman and salesman/drug dealer who doesn’t appear to be burdened by a conscience, and who becomes Isaiah’s roommate, turning his life upside down.
There are few women in Isaiah’s world, and none of them seem interested in caring about anyone but themselves—or anything other than finding their ticket out.
Isaiah’s on again, off again partnership with Dodson eventually leads them, in 2013, to take on the case of the attempted murder of Calvin Wright, aka Black the Knife, a millionaire rapper who’s coming undone in full view of his parasitic and feckless entourage.
To write any more would be to risk spoiling the fun of reading this breakout novel, except to say that Joe Ide has done much more than write a fast-paced and gritty story. He has given us a brand new protagonist to care about and suffer along with; a complex character full of pain and regret, decency and fragility.
In IQ, one voice emerges above the din, and it doesn’t belong to the laconic Isaiah, nor to the rappers and gangstas he lives among. It’s Marcus’ voice, speaking loudly and clearly inside his younger brother’s head, urging him to follow the principled path he himself tread with such hope and conviction, and reminding him that every step forward should bring him closer to hope and atonement.
Note to readers:
When you’ve finished IQ (you’ll zip through!) and realize that you have a bit of a wait before the next Isaiah Quintabe mystery is available, you might like to look into the novels of Carol O’Connell, whose heroine, Cathy Mallory, has a lot in common with Isiah Quintabe, despite being tall, blond and beautiful. With a genius IQ and a traumatic past, she too, is a compelling (police) detective with an irresistible entourage.
The Mallory series is a long one. Here are my favourites:
- Mallory’s Oracle (the first in the series)
- The Man Who Cast Two Shadows (fantastic)
- Stone Angel (heart-wrenching)
- Find Me (satisfying)