It’s 1994 and Nate Byrne is a business student in the small university town of Gatton, Queensland. He sells weed on the side, but his friend/dealer Jesse has disappeared, precipitating a drug-drought. When a couple of violent bikies turn up looking for Jesse and a considerable sum of money, Nate’s tasked to find him, and fast. He stumbles upon a homemade porn ring, a missing fortune in pills and cash, the seedy underbelly of a rural community. A girl from the neighbourhood turns up dead. Nate’s too high to handle any of it. Traumas from his past are catching up to him. The plot comes heavy and fast. The sentences are short and sharp. Gritty. Noir. Laconic.
Crime author Iain Ryan has set his mystery in the broiling Gothic of regional Queensland, where hope and aspiration are submerged in stifling heat, booze and drugs. He’s made great use of the fertile milieu of a rural university, setting his action in the intersection of the middle-class ennui, ambitious criminals and devoted hedonism that thrive on campus.
Little details shade authenticity and emotion into what could be a run-of-the-mill crime caper – stoners subsisting on neenish tarts and Red Rooster chips, atavistic agricultural students smoking weed sold in “sticks”. Moments of brilliant characterisation and observation shine through, offering a subtle sketch of a stark, lonely world in what is generally a pacy novel, one that hooks you early and keeps the pages turning faster and faster towards the end. Ryan balances the depravity and the narrative heart well, for the most part.
The sense of verisimilitude fades a little when this crime novel gets to its actual crimes, and suddenly cliché abounds. Women are wanton, cops are crooked, crims have voices “like gravel”. Nate’s characterisation swings between hard-boiled noir tough guy and ’90s proto-emo; when he’s not pulling a sawn-off on a rube, he’s guzzling drugs to fight off his inner demons and having exposition-heavy flashbacks. Or getting knocked out by mysterious strangers and being driven unconscious to the next plot point. On balance, the hero ends up somewhere between Bret Easton Ellis’s nihilistic antiheroes of the late ’80s and boy-reporter Tintin.
But put that aside and The Student succeeds as a noir novel, a portrait of human nature at its most cooked, an exploration of culpability, blame and responsibility. ZC
Echo, 225pp, $24.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 29, 2017 as "Iain Ryan, The Student". Subscribe here.