Crime writer Joe Ide sat in a car in South Central Los Angeles and memories of his boyhood returned – mostly in the form of characters. "The winos used to sit out there on orange crates and drink Thunderbird all day," he said, pointing at the graffiti-streaked store front. There was one "wino" – tall, immaculate and dapper in a homburg hat "with a little feather in it" – who used to escort Ide's mother onto the bus everyday, like a butler.
This desolate collection of liquor stores, auto shops and taco places offers up a lot of ghosts for Ide. Stories poured out and he began sounding like the narrator of an Elmore Leonard novel. "There was a pool hall right up here," Ide said. "Sam's pool hall. And my older brother Jack he shot pool but it was too scary for me. It was one of those places where everyone is on parole … Yeah, there was a hooker out here who would actually show you her bullet wound."
Joe Ide in Los Angeles.Credit:NYT
The compact 60-year-old with a trim, salt-and-pepper goatee and sleek silver glasses, seems an unlikely maven of these seedy histories. But this is where Ide came of age in the 1960s and '70s, in a neighbourhood overwhelmingly black and poor.
Growing up, Ide lived in two worlds: At home, his stern Japanese grandfather collected samurai swords and spoke no English; outside he had mostly black friends. He didn't even blink when I asked whether he hesitated to write books about almost exclusively black characters.
Wrecked. By Joe Ide
"Never occurred to me," he said. "I wanted to be black, but I knew I wasn't. I always felt something of an outsider. I wasn't black. I wasn't white. I was way far from being Japanese. I would listen to people. Listen to the way they talk and imagine what was going on in their heads."
This outsider sensibility combined with a deep knowledge of those streets helped Ide many decades later when he sat down to write about a cerebral private investigator who solves crimes in a community just like the one where he grew up.
That first book, IQ, was published in 2016, praised and given awards not just for its Leonard-like fun with dialogue and character, but also because he was placing a Los Angeles crime story in a part of the city usually ignored by the genre. His third entry in the series, Wrecked, has just come out.
Ide was in his mid-50s when he decided to draw on that rough world and meld it with his childhood obsession with Sherlock Holmes stories. The detective he created, Isaiah Quintabe, has incredible powers of deductive reasoning and hyper awareness, much like Sherlock. After the death of his older brother in a hit-and-run accident (or was it?), Isaiah begins solving small local crimes and accepting payment in the form of "a sweet potato pie or cleaning his yard or one brand-new radial tyre".
He soon acquires his very own Watson, Juanell Dodson, a bumbling former gangbanger and con man who is the funny to Isaiah's heavy. As the books progress the stakes become more dangerous and the two are taken into worlds beyond the chain-link fences and dried-out lawns of the neighbourhood. There are Chinese gangs and malicious pitbull breeders, scheming hip-hop producers and, in his new book, a group of corrupt former soldiers with a history of torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib.
It took three years to write the first book, but with no connections in publishing Ide wasn't sure how to sell it. He did have one critical contact though, a first cousin he barely knew – Francis Fukuyama, the political scientist and author of The End of History and the Last Man. Ide remembered him mostly as a little boy who came to visit decades ago and had little hope his intellectual cousin would connect with a crime novel. But Fukuyama said he "couldn't put it down" and his agent committed to representing Ide, selling the television rights before the book was even in print.
Back in the old neighbourhood where Ide said most of the friends he grew up with ended up either dead or in jail, the streets were empty underneath the everyday blue of an Angeleno sky. The talk and the curious situations from long ago aren't far from his mind. As he tells it, they almost predestined him to tell these stories: "You meet people like that, you almost have to write a book."
The New York Times
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