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Denise Mina on What Really Happened in the Peter Manuel Case

May 23, 2017 in Guest Posts

The Long DropManuel is a legend in Glasgow. People still whisper about him. The ITV drama In Plain Sight tells the story of how he was caught and tried and hung, but if you want to know why he still lingers in our collective imagination, you have to listen to the pensioners.

I had no choice but to listen to them. In 2013 I wrote a play about Manuel, and they wouldn’t leave the theatre until they told me that I had the story wrong. They knew what had really happened and I was wrong, wrong, wrong. It was pretty embarrassing. It was only our mutual obsession with the case that tempered my blushes.

I first heard of Peter Manuel in the late 1980s, while doing a law degree at Glasgow University.

“During this time,” the Criminal Law lecturer chortled, “There was a fashion among accused criminals for dismissing their counsel and conducting their own defense.

“You may have heard the phrase ‘Any man who conducts his own defense has a fool for a client.’ Well, they were mostly fools. But they were copying Peter Manuel, who wasn’t a fool and made a good stab at defending himself.” Continue reading ›

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I Worked for a Duck

Apr 13, 2017 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Joe Lansdale in 1973. Credit: Dan Lowry

Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, I worked for a duck. He was a nice duck and owned a flower business. What he did was he hired people like me, and other long-hairs and down and outs to stand on street corners in Austin, Texas and sell flowers. Ducks make nice employers.

People bought a lot more flowers than you might think. Austin was a pretty cool place back then. At the end of the day, the duck had a good return on his flowers, and I, and those doing the same kind of work I did on different street corners, got paid. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it wasn’t bad money for a part time job for someone not yet twenty, or maybe just turned twenty. I’m a little uncertain how old I was then, and it lacks importance.

The duck had a yellow van, and he drove us to our street corner in it and let us out, along with our cache of flowers. I would sometimes try and get people’s attention by doing a little dance on my street corner, and it worked. A lot of folks said they were buying flowers from me because I entertained them.

One time I was finishing up my dance and a beer bottle whizzed by my head, having been thrown from a car by a bunch of rednecks. I was mad and wanted a piece of them, but they raced away. They may have been rednecks that thought they were tough and were going to mess up a hippie, but I most likely looked crazy in that moment and that might have temporarily scared them out of their redneck credentials, or maybe they had some place to go and were short on time to be there.

Whatever, they went away fast. I didn’t dance anymore that day and kept an eye peeled in case they returned. I was at an intersection, and I hoped they’d catch the light. They didn’t come back though. And that’s good. I was young enough and hot-headed enough, I might be serving time in prison.

I got a little sick about it for a while, thinking I might have lost an eye or ended up with a brain injury, or at best a black eye. That bottle thrown from a car had some real speed on it.

I really had it in for rednecks after that, and part of the reason is that I had grown up with just their type. Couple of days, and I pretty much got over it, but thereafter I danced very little and continued to keep a sharp eye. No one threw anything else at me, and I never saw the rednecks again.

Okay. I’m not completely over it. Continue reading ›

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Start Reading THE BRIDGE by Stuart Prebble

Mar 28, 2017 in Excerpts, Mulholland Authors

To him, she seemed perfect. But what is Alison hiding?

THE BRIDGE, Stuart Prebble’s “brilliantly executed” (Dayton Daily News) new thriller, goes on sale today. It’s a gripping novel (with a stunning cover, if we do say so ourselves!) that asks the terrifying question: what if the woman of your dreams is not what she seems? Get started into the mystery with this exclusive excerpt.

IT WAS A sunny Saturday afternoon, and sightseers and tourists from all parts of the world crowded onto the South Bank, streaming in both directions across Waterloo Bridge. Some were walking to or from Covent Garden or the theaters; others stopped to admire the spectacular London skyline. At first glance the Madman seemed harmless enough, just a little the worse for wear from alcohol perhaps, or maybe celebrating a victory by his football team. Dressed in blue jeans and a gray hoodie, he muttered to himself and danced light-footed as he progressed, lifting his legs high like a week-old pony. Once or twice he paused and bent his knees to speak at eye level to a child, but later no one could identify the accent or decipher the words. Parents kept a watchful eye, but there seemed to be no reason for alarm. Then, with no warning, in a single sweeping movement and before anyone could intervene, the Madman scooped up the first tiny child, a four-year-old boy apparently selected at random, and swept him over the barrier.

There was a momentary snapshot of paralysis. The boy had made no sound. Was it some trick? Had the man switched the real boy for a dummy in some bizarre and ill-judged entertainment? Before anyone could take a breath the Madman had run half a dozen steps farther towards the next child, a three-year old girl in a pink dress with birthday ribbons in her hair. Once again he gripped the child under the arms and swept her up and over the barrier, her legs suddenly pedaling through nothingness. Even now, shock and disbelief immobilized bystanders. He darted forward again and grabbed another, and yet another. Each child was seemingly as light as a wafer, flicked up to shoulder height and thrust out into emptiness. Four small people, infants and toddlers, lifted up in the space of twelve or fifteen seconds and thrown over the wall before the Madman took to his heels and vanished like a phantom into the holiday crowds.

A mother fell to her knees, cracking bones against pavement, and shuffled towards the wall as if drawn towards it like a magnet. It took more moments for the screams from the bridge to catch the attention of people below on the South Bank, and fuller realization of what had occurred spread through the crowds like waves of poison gas across a battlefield. Scores of people held their heads and covered their ears as if to prevent the news from penetrating. Eyes were turned upwards towards the sound of the cries and then followed the pointing arms into the water below. Desperate and still confused, one father jumped from the bridge and hit the surface with the slap of raw meat against concrete, but even as he submerged, already the bobbing heads which were still visible had traveled a hundred yards in the churning foam. Another brave man jumped into the water from the riverbank and struck out with an urgent stroke in the direction of the fast-moving shapes. Both were overwhelmed within moments by the strength of the swell.

The first police officers arrived on the bridge within two minutes and began trying to calm the hysteria sufficiently to understand what had happened, but it seemed that no two accounts from among the many were sufficiently similar to produce a consensus. He was variously described as eighteen years old at one extreme to about thirty-five at the other. He had brown hair or black hair or auburn hair. He was tall, medium, and short, and had an athletic build or was running to fat. The only clear agreement was about the jeans and the gray hoodie, which made him a match for about two hundred other young men in the vicinity that afternoon. CCTV recordings examined later lost track of him minutes before the incident and lost him again as a pinprick in the crowd within seconds after it.

Continue reading ›

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Somebody Knows The Secret

Mar 02, 2017 in Guest Posts, Writing

Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-GoshenWe asked Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, author of Waking Lions (out now from Little, Brown and Company!) to tell us how her riveting new thriller came to be.

A middle-class doctor hits an unnamed refugee and leaves him to die by the side of the road. That’s not exactly the beginning of a romantic comedy. But when I had this sentence in my head—the one-line premise of Waking Lions—I didn’t know yet which direction the plot will take. No romantic comedy, ok, but will it be a domestic drama? A thriller? Eventually, what made the call was my partner’s reaction: “Please, don’t make me read a 400-page novel about a man sitting in his living room and feeling guilty!”

My partner is the first reader of everything I write. He’s also the second, third, and twelfth reader, because I make him read the drafts again and again until the novel is finished. When I saw the terror in his eyes, I understood that a domestic drama was not an option. And yet I tried: “Four hundred pages of feeling guilty worked perfectly fine for Dostoyevsky. Ever read Crime and Punishment?” He wasn’t impressed by this argument. “Exactly! Dostoyevsky did such a great job. Do you want to write a novel that somebody else already wrote?”

My partner begged for a thriller. The big difference between a moral thriller and a moral drama is the source of danger. While in a drama the danger is from within—feelings of shame and guilt that haunt the character—in a thriller there’s also an outside danger. The basic mechanism—somebody knows the secret—is what makes this wheel turn. The bigger the outside problem is, the more afraid we are for our character, and the more desperate the character becomes. Desperate characters make interesting moves, because human nature is revealed under pressure. It’s very easy to be a good person when everything goes as planned, but what happens when things start to fall apart? When we read about people in extreme situations—in times of war, disasters and so on—we discover that you can never tell who will be a hero and who will turn out to be a coward or a villain. We have a concept of ourselves as being one thing, but when we crash into reality, we find out that we’re completely different than we thought.

A middle-class doctor hits an unnamed refugee and leaves him to die by the side of the road—that’s the beginning. He comes back home, kisses his sleeping wife and children. He’s sitting in his living room feeling guilty—not much fun, but better than prison—when there’s a knock on the door. It’s the refugee’s wife and she witnessed the accident. The outsider’s eye raises the tension. Think of yourself committing any kind of transgression—the first thing you do is look around and see if anyone else noticed. Our moral principles—Freud’s superego—develop out of the fear of being punished for our passion or our aggression. The outsider’s eye makes for potential punishment. While in a drama the conflict is inside one’s mind, in a thriller the different aspects of the mind (the animal drives, the moral principles) are represented by different characters.

But of course, literature is more than mechanics, just as a person is much more than the sum of his organs. You can’t write a novel based on schematic structures, there has to be a soul in it. When the characters you’ve created start to move between the pages, when they start to talk and act, that’s when the story becomes alive. And when a character suddenly rebels and refuses to do what you planned in your plot structure, that’s when you know the book has a soul of its own.

Purchase Waking Lions: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | IndieBound

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A Soundtrack for Walk Away

Jan 31, 2017 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Music

Walk Away by Sam Hawken

Whenever I’m working up a new book, whether it’s during the concept phase or during outlining, I start making a playlist to go with it. Eventually I start calling it a “soundtrack,” but it’s really only a playlist. I can only imagine how much I’d have to pay in licensing fees to make an honest-to-goodness soundtrack for every book I’ve written or published. But whatever the case, Walk Away is no exception.

The soundtracks never come together in exact order. They start with a seed song or two that capture a specific character or moment. Walk Away started with the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” because I knew the book would climax with a slam-bang action sequence, and when I thought of it “Sabotage” leapt right into my head. Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” followed quickly thereafter, signifying a critical moment toward the end of the book following the action, but you’ll notice it isn’t here. About midway through the editing process on the book, I realized Willie Nelson’s “The Maker” better fit the characters in the scene and the message I wanted to convey. So Dylan was out and Willie was in. I consider that a good trade.

It’s rare that I call out a song in the text itself, but occasionally I want so much for a reader to hear what I hear that I’ll name-check the artist or the title so the scene unspools as I imagine it. Such was the case with the Kid Rock’s “Bawitdaba,” which is something of a douchebag anthem, but irresistibly catchy. It seemed like the perfect song to accompany Camaro beating the holy living s— out of someone, and so you’ll find direct reference to it in the book. Sorry for being so pushy.

Many of the songs you’ll find on this playlist become totally obvious in the context of reading the book. They are indicative of a place — like “Going to California,” or “All the Small Things” — or they attach directly to a character. I don’t think anyone can read Walk Away and not realize how George Thorogood’s “Who Do You Love” connects to the book’s primary antagonist, Lukas Collier. Similarly, when the playlist opens with Larkin Poe and “Trouble in Mind,” you know that’s Camaro to the bone.

I chose some songs because they spoke the same language as Walk Away. Pearl Jam’s “Better Man” is a sorrowful tale of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship, and Walk Away addresses this issue head-on. The victimized woman in “Better Man” has a far less salvific fate than Camaro’s sister, Annabel, but we can hope. And when you hear Tracy Chapman lament in “At This Point in My Life,” you know you’re hearing the interior voice of Camaro more clearly than she would ever allow. It is in these and many ways that I prime myself to tell the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it. If there’s an emotion to strike, sometimes there’s need of a boost to get there.

Of all the songs on the playlist, though, I think the one that communicates a sense of hope better than anything is the closing track from Everclear, “Santa Monica.” In Walk Away, Camaro goes through a serious grinder, not only physically, but emotionally. “Santa Monica” talks about coming into your own in a way you haven’t before, and I like to think the final moments of Walk Away convey that to the reader.

Enjoy listening once you’ve read. Tell me what you think.

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Start Reading The Prometheus Man by Scott Reardon

Jan 24, 2017 in Excerpts

The Prometheus Man by Scott ReardonStart the year of right—with a bracing, nerve-jangling debut thriller. Scott Reardon launches a new series for Mulholland today with the publication of The Prometheus Man. Tom races against the clock to get to the bottom of a secret government program, a project so clandestine he must go under deep cover to infiltrate it. What makes this project so dangerous? Read the opening chapter below to find out what’s at stake.

Chapter 1

“You need to come in.”

The words came out so low and fast Karl wasn’t sure he’d heard them.

He rolled over in the bed. “Who is this?” Then he remembered he was on a cell phone and the line wasn’t secure. “Wait. Say again.”

“You need to come here. Right now.”

His feet were already on the floor the moment he recognized the voice. There were questions on the tip of his tongue, but the circumstances answered them before he could speak.

Did something happen at the lab?

—Of course something happened at the lab.

Are the police there?

—He wouldn’t tell you if they were.

“Fifty minutes,” he said and hung up.

He was actually only twenty minutes away, but Weaver—the voice on the phone—didn’t know just how frequently he switched hotels. Within minutes, he was out of Paris proper and heading for the lab. It was that hour of night when so much of the world was at rest that it became a sort of death. He sped across silent streets and empty highways, a world without people, until he reached the forest outside Versailles.

He pulled onto a service road. Once he reached a redundant power station, he skidded to a stop. The wind whistled across his windows and bent the trees in his headlights. He sat there for a minute, knowing he ought to call this in to Langley, ultimately deciding he wasn’t going to do that.

He drove around the power station and took the road another half mile to a warehouse whose only color came from ancient scabs of red paint.

The stars were out. Karl could see Weaver sitting on a cinder block surrounded by black leafless trees.

Weaver had always reminded Karl of Renfield, the attorney Dracula turned into his houseboy. He was short, severe-looking, and had the kind of temper that flares only when a back is turned. Weaver said nothing as Karl approached. His eyes were fixed on the horizon, though in the woods there is no horizon.

Without looking in Karl’s direction, he stood up and led the way to the lab. The entrance to it was inside the warehouse, which wasn’t actually a warehouse. And that was the idea. No road crew or stray backpacker could ever know what was here.

Inside, the lab was dark. It wasn’t supposed to be. Weaver flipped the switch to a light by the door.

And there was blood.

It was streaked over the plexiglass wall that divided the lab from the rest of the building. Where it wasn’t streaked, it was sprayed.

Karl saw a handprint in it.

“I locked them in,” Weaver said. “I had to.”

He stood waiting for the reaction, the explosion at what he had done. But Karl just turned and stared at him.

“One of them got loose,” Weaver said. “It was waiting for us.”

Karl glanced at Weaver’s jacket pockets, looking for the bulge of a weapon.

“I got out first and used the override. By the time I got back, it had dragged Dr. Feld to the door.”

“What override?”

“It was holding him against the glass.” Weaver closed his eyes. “I couldn’t see what it was doing to him, but he was still alive.”

Karl looked at the plexiglass. There were other partial handprints and, between them, runny smears where someone had tried over and over to wipe away the blood. Which would have been difficult, like scraping egg yolk off a plate after it’s congealed.

“It was keeping him alive on purpose.” Weaver pulled out another cigarette. “It was torturing him.”

“‘Animals don’t torture other living things.’ Your words, Dr. Weaver. And please don’t smoke in here.”

Weaver turned on him. The expression on his face was hard to look at. “You don’t get it. The code. It knew he had the code to get out.”

Then Karl understood the purpose behind the wiping. The last one alive would have tried to clear the blood off the glass, so he could see Weaver. Plead with him.

“Unlock the door,” he said.

Weaver grimaced like this was a sick joke.

“They could still be alive. Unlock the door.”

“But by now the rest of the sample could be loose too. I’m not going to—”

Karl shoved Weaver back against the wall and pressed his forearm into his neck. Weaver choked in silence, in acceptance.

“You override the override,” Karl said, “or whatever the hell it is you have to do to get that door open.”

Weaver worked on the door while Karl went into the woods. At the base of a little tree, he dug up the Sig compact he’d buried in a plastic shopping bag. When he got back, he found Weaver standing across the entrance from the lab door.

They hit the fluorescents inside, but only a few came on. The rest dangled by their wiring. The alarm system went off, but since they’d disabled the sirens long ago, the blue lights spun in silence, whipping shadows around the room. Through the strobing, Karl could see Dr. Feld. He was right by the door, right where Weaver had last seen him.

Deep gouges had been cut into his skin, splitting it wide along his legs, back, and sides. His foot, still encased in its Rockport orthopedic walking shoe, lay several feet from his body. His face wasn’t on right: something powerful had gripped it and twisted.

Feld’s assistant was stretched along the floor nearby, facedown, with one arm extended overhead. Patches of hair and scalp were missing from the back of his head. The other arm was so dislocated from its socket that the wrist rested on the back of his skull. Karl didn’t see Eric Reese, the youngest member of Project Prometheus and the only one he really knew.

With his weapon raised, Karl crept through the door. The spinning lights made it seem like in every corner of the room something was moving. He listened as hard as he ever had in his life. As he scanned the room for bodies, dead or alive, his eyes stopped on something else.

He didn’t recognize it at first—it looked so different from the way it had looked the last time he’d seen it and so different from the way it was supposed to look. Only its height was the same: four feet. The largest members of the species, Karl had been told, weighed 110 pounds. This one must have weighed twice that. Its hands had thickened, and the skin on them looked chunky, like raw hamburger microwaved gray. The musculature was all wrong. It was thick like a man’s, not lengthy like a chimpanzee’s.

The chimp was propped up against a desk with its hands in its lap, like a child being read a story. There was blood pooled under its body and a hollow space where its throat had been. Skin hung in rags under its fingernails. Though he would never admit it to anyone, though it wouldn’t go in any report, Karl knew its wounds had been self-inflicted. He knelt down and gently cupped the back of its head. Then he looked at Dr. Feld and his assistant and tried to imagine scenarios in which they bled out fast. He stayed there until Weaver came up to him.

“Contact Dr. Nast,” Karl said. “Tell him everything’s on hold.”

When he looked up, Weaver was staring at him. “I thought you knew.” He almost sounded sad.

“Knew what?”

Weaver hesitated.

“Knew what?”

“Dr. Nast got the go-ahead.”

“The go-ahead for what?”

“To start the next trial. They injected the first volunteer two days ago.”

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A Letter of Introduction from Federico Axat

Dec 06, 2016 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Kill The Next One by Federico AxatI am writing these lines a long time after the last page of Kill the Next One. The book is no longer the same, and I am no longer the same. The life of a book in the outside world commences with the word “fin,” and a number of things have happened since then: translations, events, and many readers have had the opportunity to read it. I have had the great joy of exchanging views with readers, and it has been revealing; Kill The Next One is a labyrinth whose passages have not yet been fully explored, I fear, not even for me.

I knew the book would start with a strong event, that it would lead to a maze of repetitive cycles and some lineaments, rather than saying too much.

One afternoon at the beginning of the writing journey, I went to visit my mother, who has always been interested in the course of my literary career. I do not have the habit of talking too much about works in progress; however, this time I forgot that rule and talked about the idea I had in mind. It would draw on possible plots, hypothetical characters, and situations that support what I want to tell. She made me a coffee with sugar and sat at the table willing to talk with me as we had done so many times before. I stood next to an antique piece of furniture that had belonged to my grandmother. This cabinet is covered at the top by a plate of marble, and it has wooden ornaments in the corners. The marble slab became the main timeline, and the ornaments were the cycles. I slid my finger forward and backward along the edge of the marble, explaining the operation of the novel, where the surprises were, how the cycles worked…just as a professor explains a complex theory to the discomfiture of his students. Permit me to use this analogy not because I think I have the lucidity of a professor, but because my mother, who is a highly intelligent and lucid woman, did not understand a word of that first sketch of Kill The Next One. And that was logical! For there was nothing to understand.

Still.

This strong start was the key to shaping the plot itself. I remembered a story I had begun writing a long time ago in which a man was about to take his life in his home office. His doorbell rang, and the man had the choice to answer or not. When he finally decided to open the door, he met a mysterious man who made him a proposition that was difficult to refuse. The story wasn’t there. I had not even figured out what was so compelling about the proposal. I returned to the story, reread it—there were only about three or four pages—and I knew that was the opening I was looking for, that the elements I needed to develop the plot had been drawn in the marble furniture inherited from my grandmother Anita.

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Ruler of the Night: Malvern’s Bizarre Water-Cure Clinic

Nov 11, 2016 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors

Ruler of the Night by David MorrellDavid Morrell’s Ruler of the Night is set on the harrowing, fogbound streets of 1855 London. A gripping Victorian mystery/thriller, its vivid historical details come from years of research. Here are photo essays that David prepared about the novel’s fascinating locations. Read the first essay about Euston Stationthe second essay about Wyld’s Monster Globe, and the third essay about Dove Cottage.

The hydropathy craze of the mid-1800s began when Vincenz Priessnitz, the son of a farmer, with no medical training whatsoever, established a water-cure clinic in the town of Gräfenberg, located on an Austrian mountain that’s now part of the Czech Republic. The clinic became so popular that British doctors replicated it in the area of Malvern Hills in the West Midlands of England.

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Included in T.S. Oliver’s Taking the Cure

The springs at Malvern were renowned for their purity, but the quality of the drinking water was only part of the reason that well-to-do patients paid large sums to seek treatment there for arthritis, gout, kidney ailments, and nervous disorders. Although there wasn’t any scientific basis for using water as a physical therapy, guests became convinced that it helped them.

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The wet-sheet treatment, the upper and lower douches, and the plunge bath were only some of the therapies that doctors at Malvern’s hydropathy clinic recommended. In Ruler of the Night, Thomas De Quincey becomes subjected to the extremes of the wet-sheet method as a way of curing him of his opium addiction. Meanwhile, a killer stalks one of the clinic’s guests.

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A Soundtrack for The Highway Kind

Oct 19, 2016 in Guest Posts, Mulholland Authors, Music, Short Stories

The Highway Kind edited by Patrick Millikin

It was a thrill and an honor to work with such an exceptional group of writers for The Highway Kind, and, as music plays such a vital role to the theme and mood of the book I wanted to put together a soundtrack that captured its eccentric spirit. What I didn’t want was a collection of the familiar road songs that we all know; my hope was to take listeners on an interesting and fun musical journey. Whenever possible I matched songs with particular stories, and I made sure to take suggestions from the contributors. For instance, Joe Lansdale suggested Woody Guthrie’s “Car Song” as the perfect companion to his Depression-era tale of two East Texas kids on the road. Wallace Stroby suggested Dave Alvin’s wonderful “Interstate City,” while Gary Phillips contributed Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive.” Jim Sallis reminded me to include Robert Johnson’s seminal “Terraplane Blues.” Robin Trower’s “Daydream” features in George Pelecanos’s story and perfectly evokes its mood. Two of the contributors, Willy Vlautin and Patterson Hood, are also well-known musicians and songwriters, and I couldn’t resist giving them both a serious shout out here: Vlautin’s “Stateline” from his band The Delines’ sublime “Colfax” album perfectly fit the vibe I was looking for, and Hood (The Drive-By Truckers) graciously suggested his band mate Mike Cooley’s “Zip City.”

For better or worse, most of the other selections were my own. I hope you enjoy the playlist. I sure had fun putting it together…

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Start Reading IQ by Joe Ide

Oct 18, 2016 in Excerpts

IQ by Joe IdeJoe Ide’s debut novel, IQ, is one of the most fun novels we’ve read in the long time. IQ is a raucous take on Sherlock, if Sherlock were young, black, and lived in East Long Beach. Washington Post hails IQ as “one of the most original thrillers of the year,” and the New York Times Book Review calls it “a total laff-riot.” All we can say is buckle up, enjoy a few pages from Chapter One, and pick up a copy of IQ at a bookstore near you.

Chapter One: Unlicensed and Underground
July 2013

Isaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual. The security screen was made from the same heavy-duty mesh they used to cage in crackheads and bank robbers
at the Long Beach police station. The front door was covered with a thin walnut veneer but underneath was a twenty-gauge steel core set in a cold steel frame with a pick-proof, bump-proof, drill-proof Medeco Double Cylinder High Security Maxum Deadbolt. You’d need some serious power tools to get past all that and even if you did there was no telling what you’d be into. Word was, the place was booby-trapped. A cherry eight-year-old Audi S4 was parked in the driveway. It was a small, plain car in dark gray with a big V8 and sports suspension. The neighborhood kids were always yelling at Isaiah to put some rims on that whip.

Isaiah was in the living room, reading emails off his MacBook and drinking his second espresso, when he heard the car alarm go
off. He snatched the collapsible baton off the coffee table, went to the front door, and opened it. Deronda was leaning her world-class badonk against the hood, smothering a headlight and part of the grill. She wasn’t quite a Big Girl but damn close in her boy shorts and pink tube top two sizes too small. She was pretending to sulk, sighing and sighing again while she frowned at the sparkly things on her ice-blue nails. Isaiah chirped off the alarm, one hand shading his eyes from the afternoon glare.

“No, I didn’t forget your number,” he said, “and I wasn’t going to call you.”

“Ever?” Deronda said.

“You’re looking for a baby daddy and you know that’s not me.”

“You don’t know what I’m looking for and even if you did it wouldn’t be you.” Except she was shopping around for somebody who could pay a few bills, and Isaiah would do just fine. Yeah, okay, he did make her uneasy, he made everybody uneasy, checking you out like he knew you were fronting and wanting to know why. He looked okay, not ugly, but you’d hardly notice him at a club or a party. Six feet tall, rail thin, no chain, no studs in his ears, a watch the color of an aluminum pan, and if he was inked up it was nowhere she could see. The last time she’d run into him he was wearing what he wore now: a light-blue, short-sleeve shirt, jeans, and Timberlands. She liked his eyes. They were almond shaped and had long lashes like a girl’s. “You not gonna invite me in?” she said. “I walked all the way over here from my mama’s house.”

“Stop lying,” he said. “Wherever you came from you didn’t walk.”

“How do you know?”

“Your mama lives on the other side of Magnolia. Are you telling me you walked seven miles in the heat of the day in flip-flops
with all those bunions growing out of your feet? Teesha dropped you off.”

“You think you know so much. Could have been anybody dropped me off.”

“Your mama’s at work, Nona’s at work, Ira still has that cast on his leg, and DeShawn lost his license behind that DUI. I saw his
car in the impound yard, the white Nissan with the front stoved in. There’s nobody left in your world but Teesha.”

“Just because Ira got a cast on his leg don’t mean he can’t drive.”

Isaiah leaned against the doorway. “I thought you said you walked.”

“I did walk,” Deronda said, “just, you know, like part of the way and then somebody else came and I—” Deronda slid off the hood
and stamped her foot. “Dang, Isaiah!” she said. “Why you always gotta fuck with people? I came over here to be sociable, aight?
What’s the damn difference how I got here?”

It made no difference at all but he couldn’t help seeing what he saw. Things different or things not right or out of place or in place when they shouldn’t be or not in sync with the words that came with them.

“Well?” Deronda said. “You gonna make me stand out here and get heatstroke or invite me in and pour me a cocktail? You never
know, something good might happen.”

Deronda looked down at her ankle, turning it to one side like something was stuck to it, probably wondering where Isaiah’s eyes
were. On her dark chocolate thigh gleaming in the California sunshine or her dark chocolate titties trying their best to escape over that tube top. Isaiah looked away, uncomfortable deciding for the both of them what would happen next. She wasn’t his type, not that he had one. Most of his love life was curiosity sex. A girl intrigued by the low-key brother who was so smart people said he was scary. That hadn’t happened in a while. He opened the screen.

“Well, come on then,” he said.
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