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Posted on 18 Feb 2021 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

IAIN RYAN The Spiral. Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

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Inventive and brutal, there are good reasons why Iain Ryan’s third novel is being talked about.

It’s fair to say that thrillers come at the reader of Australian fiction at a pretty hefty rate, and it’s hard to avoid some familiar story elements, e.g. a hero, in more than a spot of bother, fights the good fight, often as the one good thing in a world that’s gone horribly wrong, wins the day by the skin of their teeth, living to fight on another day. Many of these novels are great reading, but the occasional shake-up of expectations is greatly appreciated. Enter Erma Bridges in The Spiral, and a major working-over of every sort of expectation.

Erma Bridges is a Muay Thai practising academic battling a series of troubles, not least of them Jenny, her research assistant, going missing, and a flurry of sexual misconduct claims that all seem to coincide.

No one said her name, but she was there.
The originator of all this. The architect.
Jenny the common denominator.
Jenny who knows all those people.
Jenny who binds them together.
Jenny and me.

Even allowing for the sexual misconduct complaints, the disappearance, and some missing research materials – including a dictaphone used to taunt Erma – nothing prepares her for the night when, as she’s lying in bed in her quiet apartment, Jenny enters the room, shoots Erma twice, then turns the gun on herself. That leaves an encyclopaedia-sized book full of questions behind and, while Erma eventually recovers physically, her search for answers is what really haunts her and becomes her major focus.

I’m following the timeline back – like a rope – into a sinister forest of drooling creatures and howling wind. In that dark wild place, I become a different person and I live inside that person. The barbarian. I see things I cannot see elsewhere. For example, I can see, with calm poise, that I am lost along every dimension. And yet, I keep moving forward.

Erma’s career trajectory feeds directly into the narrative of The Spiral. Now a full-time academic, she’s writing a book with the working title Secret Interactions: A history of reader-deployed young adult fiction. It’s about the choose-your-own-adventure books from her childhood, a major body of which were written by the reclusive, now elderly, Archibald Moder. She’s also got a fractured family that she deals with by distancing herself, as it seems she does from most aspects of life, although there is potentially something going on with her sex life that leaves the reader wondering about those allegations.

While The Spiral’s main viewpoint is Erma’s, the storyline is interspersed with chapters told from the viewpoint of one of Moder’s major characters – Sero:

Sleep comes quickly until something takes hold of your ankle. It keeps hold as you try to snatch your leg up, still dazed. The force of the recoil pulls a skeletal arm up out of the desert floor.

As the Sero chapters become increasingly fantastical and sinister, there are clues to the real world embedded in them, closely mirroring the threat and foreboding that is increased with every move that Erma makes, blundering as she is into something much darker than the reader might reasonably have imagined on first encountering this cleverly devised narrator.

At the same time, there’s something about Erma that will strike many readers as slightly off-kilter. There’s something about her family, the way she treats friends, her boyfriends and sexual encounters – just a hint of something, perhaps unreliable, perhaps unforgiving, it’s hard to define given everything is through Erma’s eyes.

Iain Ryan has a history of setting thrillers in academia. One of his earlier novels, The Student, is set on a campus in Queensland, with a disengaged student as his main character. The Spiral has plenty of action happening in and around the university where Erma Bridges works. There her friend and fellow academic Kanika is writing about a series of disappearances of students from the campus at the same time that Erma is working on her own book. The setting here serves Ryan well, providing plenty of connections and coincidences, keeping the reader guessing about the people and places and, ultimately, where everything is heading.

There’s always a sequence to things. Connections to be made. Always. That’s why I make timelines because time connects things. Over time, a small thing can lead to a big thing. A small thing can kill you. Given enough time, anything can happen. All sparks become an explosion.

As Jenny’s erratic behaviour leads to the shooting of Erma, so Jenny’s suicide triggers the search for lost research materials essential to the completion of Erma’s book. The connections continue to mount, with campus disappearances starting to reveal some patterns of their own, and some faces glimpsed in crowds and on posters reappearing in the most unlikely of places. Always, though, at the centre of the swirl of intrigue is Erma, revealing her own story piece by piece, purposefully and carefully until the spiralling starts to fray her carefully constructed camouflage.

The Spiral is fast paced – it’s pretty well impossible to put down – and the underlying story is as shocking as it is sadly predictable in this day and age. The finale, on the other hand, is utterly unexpected, intriguing and sobering:

But there are always options, I suppose. Options I need to decide for myself, that I can work through, a future without your prying, beady eyes, a new set of conjoined narratives that ….
I blow the candle out.

Iain Ryan The Spiral Echo Publishing 2020 PB 336pp $29.99

Karen Chisholm blogs from austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews as well as author biographies.

You can buy The Spiral from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.