Title: The Spiral

Author: Iain Ryan

Publisher: Echo/Allen and Unwin, 2021

Be warned: things are not straightforward in Iain Ryan’s third novel. The Melbourne writer, twice a winner of the Ned Kelly crime fiction award, has gone meta in his third novel.

Ryan’s prose is clean, well suited to the genre as he weaves noir grit and fantasy brawn into an intriguing thriller.

As the book opens, academic researcher Erma Bridges has some explaining to do. There’s scuttlebutt about her relationships with colleagues and students, an attack and a suicide, and a stalled research project threatening to destabilise her career. As one might expect of a book called The Spiral, things go downhill from there.

As a counterpoint to Erma’s first-person narrative, Ryan offers the barbarian Sargo, referred to in the second person. Sargo is a figment drawn from the pages of a choose-your-own-adventure style book, sexless, lethal, on a quest to overcome an amnesiac state of being. The barbarian is a character created by a famed writer of choose-your-own-adventures who is at the centre of Erma’s research, a reclusive figure who just may hold the key to Erma’s career success.

Erma’s quest for the writer takes her from the sandstone halls of The University of Queensland to the seedy alleys of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley to the lush surrounds of a secluded mansion in the Gold Coast hinterland. In the background, there are female students being abducted, crime figures linked to Erma’s colleagues, and the central mystery of Jenny: Erma’s research assistant, a woman with a link to the writer, a handgun and an axe to grind.

As Erma descends into the mysteries, Sargo’s branching narrative intrudes, requiring the reader to choose their own path through the barbarian’s maze that offers insights into Erma’s secrets.

It’s a journey of self-discovery and revelation, for Erma and the reader as Sargo. Of course it ends in blood. Of that, there is never any choice.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung, March 2021

Jason Nahrung is Ballarat Writers publicity and communications officer