We have so many Sherlocks these days.
Books, multiple TV shows, movies — the world (particularly the modern world) is so rich with touchy, cold, brilliant consulting detectives that it's a wonder there are any crimes left for the police to solve. I mean, with such a profusion of Holmeses running around, why would anyone bother calling 911?
And yet the character model polished to such a high and perfect gloss by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle more than a hundred years ago is so deep and so elastic that it somehow stretches to contain these multitudes. Most of the time the strain doesn't even show because these Holmesian characters? We want them in our world. We want to believe that there will always be a Sherlock in our neighborhood when we need him most. And Isaiah Quintabe, the protagonist of Joe Ide's debut novel, IQ, is a Sherlock for a very specific neighborhood: South Central L.A.
First off, a few things I love about this. One, IQ (Isaiah's somewhat on-the-nose nickname) is angry. He has a simmering rage that is purer and less didactic than Sherlock's. Two, he's rooted in his community in a way that his inspiration never was. IQ does not solve problems for the Queen of England or the King of Bohemia. He tracks down blackmailers and rescues neighborhood girls from kidnappers.
As a result, he's always broke. Smart as hell, sure, but when your entire clientele is made up of poor folks from the block who can only pay with one new tire, a nice casserole or weeding the lawn, what can you do? He has a chicken named Alejandro running around the house which (along with a recipe for arroz con pollo) was payment from a neighbor. It's a tiny detail that grounds IQ's circumstances in a reality he has lived with for years. He started out poor (a young black man whose only family — his brother Marcus — was killed by a hit-and-run driver, leaving him alone and furious). Even locally famous, he remains poor. His financial situation (not entirely unlike Sherlock's) drives a lot of the rising action. IQ needs a job. He has bills to pay. And when the man comes knocking, sometimes even the very smart make bad choices.
The novel runs with parallel narratives — IQ in 2013, doing a "payday job" for famous rapper Black The Knife, trying to figure out who tried to murder him with a monstrous pitbull, and IQ in 2005, living his backstory as an effortlessly brilliant young teenager forced into bad circumstances by the death of his brother. He takes in a roommate, Dodson (rhymes with Watson, get it?), a low-level drug dealer and natural-born street hustler. IQ drops out of high school. He hones his talents for inductive reasoning (not deductive, which Ide makes a big point of) by searching for the driver of the car that killed Marcus and, broke as always, Dodson introduces him to a life of crime — which IQ has a talent for, but not really a taste.
But it's the reasoning part that leads me to one of the things about the book I didn't love. One of the big draws of the Sherlock Holmes stories was Holmes's ability to make these huge logical leaps that depended only on his powers of observation and encyclopedic knowledge of different muds, tobacco varieties, and everything else. It became such a thing — such an intrinsic part of the Sherlock Holmes canon — that it was almost a joke, the number of highly specific monographs Holmes had written.
IQ, on the other hand, seems to have pure observation as his primary superpower. He's just a guy that notices things. Who can focus on details (bonus points to Ide for showing where this came from in a sort of training montage that's very skillfully done) and shut out all distractions. He is smart, absolutely. He knows things. But the leaps he makes (where a man was hiding to avoid security cameras, for example) are more modest than those epic Sherlockian jumps.
And yet, they're also somehow apt. IQ is a small story in the way the best of Conan Doyle's were. It's like one of the cases that Sherlock would reference as a sidenote to the main action of the story, humblebragging to Watson about his prowess. It's a detective story that plays out very close to home, on the streets and corners that Ide (who grew up in South Central) knows best.
And Isaiah fits into those streets like they were made for him. A consulting detective for a time and a place that needs one.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.