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Posted on 12 Mar 2024 in Crime Scene, Fiction |

IAIN RYAN The Strip. Reviewed by Ben Ford Smith

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The new novel from the author of The Spiral and The Student delivers a noir excursion into the underbelly of the Gold Coast in the 1980s.

Steeped in corruption, incompetence, and alcohol, 1980s Queensland seems like the perfect setting for a distinctly Australian noir. Matthew Condon explored the era in great detail over several non-fiction books, but few crime novelists have exploited its riches (Andrew McGahan and Chris Nyst being two notable exceptions). Submerged in vice and vomit, Iain Ryan’s third novel The Strip attempts just this. A gritty police procedural that dives into the depravity of the times, the book nevertheless offers a glimpse of individual salvation, even as the system itself keeps on ticking.

In 1980, when the events of the book take place, the Fitzgerald Inquiry that burst open decades of police misconduct and led to the arrest of Commissioner Terry Lewis, was still seven years away. The Joke – a widespread system of police corruption – ran unchecked, despite it being common knowledge amongst residents of the Sunshine State. The general public had little faith in the police, and police had little trust in each other. The Joke, damaging enough in itself, also fostered a culture of indifferent and often grossly incompetent policing. Deliberately misrepresenting defendants’ statements in court was common practice, as was violence against suspects and the public at large. With promotion made on the basis of seniority alone, the Queensland Police Force was locked in a spiral of corruption and maladministration.

This is the world into which Detective Constable Lana Cohen is plunged when she arrives on the Gold Coast in February 1980. Ostensibly she has come up from Sydney to help the flailing police force investigate the unsolved Diablo killings. In reality, she is there to observe and report elements of corruption to her similarly corrupt supervisors in New South Wales. Arriving on the Strip, Cohen finds an investigation in utter disarray: case files strewn through the murder room, no leads on suspects, and the previous lead investigator, Emmett Hades, on indefinite leave after a catastrophic mental breakdown. As Hades puts it in his journal:

No future. No past. Just an endless present rolling on like some locked groove of a broken record, locked on to summer and the new decade on the Gold Coast. I used to be a policeman. Twenty years, I gave it. Fifteen as a detective. Haunted by it now. Haunted and broken.

The Diablo murders have confounded the local police force, driven Hades to the brink of madness, and are in the process of doing the same to Henry Loch, sent to the Gold Coast as a punishment posting. According to a political memo, Loch is ‘an irredeemable thug with a slim list of achievements … in service due to occulted political goodwill.’ Diablo is his last chance, both for his career and any remaining self-respect.

Unfortunately for Loch, Diablo has been going two years, racked up seven victims, and hasn’t presented a single likely suspect. Strange inconsistencies riddle the case, not least two separate MOs – strangling and shooting – and a variety of reported getaway vehicles. With the media closing in, every passing day threatens to reveal how badly the force has bungled the investigation; facing pressure from above, Chief Superintendent Albert Beggs gives the squad a three-day deadline to make an arrest.

Cohen and Loch team up, and the novel is told from their alternating points of view as their separate investigations lead them through the seedy crevices of Gold Coast squalor. Cohen’s approach is more analytical, more by the book, while Loch gets his leads bribing prostitutes and breaking into houses. Still, as Cohen puts it, ‘we’re the same animal, you and me. You’re the bogan and I’m the skirt.’ In the end the Strip gets everyone, and Cohen risks her integrity and her career to carry on the investigation.

The book is populated by brothel madams and standover men, pot dealers and dodgy real estate developers, many of them painted in a brighter light than the force’s police officers. This is true enough to the era, too, when a petty criminal could well be guilty of fewer crimes than the officers arresting them. Ryan vividly evokes the moral quagmire of eighties Queensland, when many police became corrupt out of fear or laziness rather than greed, and certain officers were more dangerous than criminals.

The Strip recalls the work of David Peace in its eschatological themes and depictions of copious alcohol consumption, and of Elmore Leonard in its rapid-fire dialogue and telegraphic style. Ryan’s writing is sharp and quick, the dialogue snaps as the best hardboiled dialogue does. Ryan’s use of short chapters (many only one or two pages) keeps the book moving at a near-frantic pace. Despite this, the story doesn’t feel hurried and characters are drawn vividly to stand out from the rush of action. Similarly, as the plot grows murkier and more complex, as lies pile on lies and strange associations emerge, Ryan does well to keep the thread taut. There is a fine line between compelling complexity and bewilderment, and one of The Strip’s strengths is that it provides just enough clarity to keep the reader ploughing through the chaos.

Iain Ryan The Strip Ultimo Press 2024 PB 336pp $34.99

Ben Ford Smith is an Adelaide-based writer and the co-author of Drugs, Guns & Lies (2020, Allen & Unwin). He holds a PhD in creative writing from Flinders University, South Australia.

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

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

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