The Student by Iain Ryan is high-paced, hardboiled regional noir: fresh, gritty, unnerving, with a stark and lonely beauty.
University campus novels involving crime date back to at least Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935), in which Lord Peter Wimsey and his mystery writer friend Harriet Vane investigate vandalism, poison-pen messages, and threats of murder at Oxford University, Harriet’s alma mater. More recently, there was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which takes place at a fictional Vermont college called Hampden, modeled on Bennington College, where Tartt went. In The Secret History, a murder does occur, though the novel has the form of an inverted mystery—a whydunit—with its killing taking place at the novel’s outset.
Over the years, campus mystery novels have tended to use their settings much like classic era detective writers used ships, country houses, and trains as sites for murder: the campus serves as an isolated environment where a detective investigates a crime among a small group of people. The campus forms a world unto itself, with codes of behavior unique to it.
What I’ve not encountered in my reading till now is a campus novel that functions as a down and dirty, neo-noir crime tale. But that is exactly what you get with Australian writer Iain Ryan’s The Student, a book that reads a little bit like James Ellroy crossed with early Bret Easton Ellis.
Set in 1994 in Gatton—an ugly rural town in the state of Queensland—Ryan’s novel is told by Nate, a business student at the local university. Nate lives in a caravan park and sometimes attends classes. Burdened with parents whose financial troubles are making it hard for them to keep their home, Nate works at a McDonald’s in town.
But his main source of income is the weed he sells on a regular basis, primarily to his fellow students. The money he brings in from his dealing is substantial, enough to get him through school and keep his parents in their house. But when his main supplier—a guy called Jesse—goes missing, Nate finds himself in perilous straits.
His cash flow is drying up without fresh weed to sell, and two local thugs turn up in his trailer wanting to know Jesse’s whereabouts. When Nate confesses ignorance to this, the thugs rough him up and let him know that, as Jesse’s friend and business associate, he had better find Jesse or get them the forty-five thousand dollars Jesse owes them.
Jesse, it seems, has gone missing with that money. They are the ones who supply Jesse, they tell Nate, and one of them says to him, “I guess that makes you my bitch then.” The violence, the idea that certain people belong to other people, and the partial revelation of a drug hierarchy that operates in Gatton—all these things will come into play as the novel progresses.
There are two murders that must be solved in The Student—one of a woman, the other of a man—but police are tangential to this story, and there is no detective on the case. Nate, the low-level drug dealer struggling to keep his head above water, becomes the novel’s investigator, though his motive for poking around and trying to find out the truth stems mainly from his sense of self-preservation. Under threat from the pair who beat him up, he needs to discover what happened to Jesse, and the paths he goes down while asking questions and digging up dirt leads him to horrifying places.
Nate is no innocent, but what he learns about a few of his best friends upsets him no end. In true noir fashion, sides of people emerge that even those closest to them didn’t know existed. The novel never belabors the point, but The Student is very much a novel about the mystery of human personality, the ultimate unknowability of people.
But do bad people look like good people, like friends and brothers and boyfriends and students, until they have their hands around your throat? I stand there and a part of me thinks the answer is yes. All of these men stand around me, drinks in hand, backs to the screen…these men are smiling, laughing, flirting, and they look harmless. Completely harmless. But any one of them could be something else now: a rapist, a murderer, a spree-shooter, a torturer, a paedophile. I try to picture them sprayed with blood and gore and it’s easy. It’s so easy. All of these guys could be Jesse because all of these guys were just like him, right up until he—
As in his cop novels, Ryan employs a terse style. He uses short sentences. Often, he simply eschews sentences, making one or two word phrases his paragraphs and forging a staccato rhythm. It’s here that we see an aspect of the James Ellroy influence on him.
The Bret Easton Ellis factor comes through in how he presents his characters, the late teenage college students indulging in various forms of excess. There’s no question that Ellis’s campus novel, The Rules of Attraction, is an influence here; Ryan’s young characters, like Ellis’s, don’t exactly exude empathy. Through intention or haphazardly, they get themselves into situations that balanced, thoughtful adults would have problems negotiating, and as teenagers, they are ill-equipped to handle these difficulties. The drugs they take and the copious amounts of booze they drink do not help them. Their reasoning processes are impaired.
Ryan presents a cavalcade of sociopathy through a character who does retain the empathetic gene, and it’s this humanity in Nate that makes him vulnerable to emotional pain. What begins for him as a mission of self-preservation—an attempt to get himself out of a corner—becomes an engagement with Ellroy-worthy forces of corruption and exploitation, and Nate becomes educated in a way he could not achieve at school:
This is the big lesson I learned at university: forgetting is a type of debt. Last year, I was living a precarious life, surveying the world as if I’d forgotten that people can change as quickly as markets; that new sides of situations can appear without contingency; that things aren’t always as they seem. I somehow forgot that dark incentives sit beneath the surface of people … But I think that might be it: I was naïve by design. I wanted things to be straightforward for once … I wanted to win. And I wanted money. What I really wanted was supply and demand without moral complication, and that never happens. There’s always a price where two things intersect. There’s always a cost when history meets the present.
In The Student, Iain Ryan takes a long, hard look at those dark incentives sitting underneath everyday life. He explores a world where unapologetic elites use and spread their malignance to reap their profits and keep others in line. The campus novel, in his hands, becomes an instrument to explore human beings in extremis, and his book makes for a compelling read. You care about Nate and want him to make it through his ordeal as a person who can function in the world. You want him not only to survive but to be able to find some joy in life. After all, he’s just in college and has many years of living ahead of him.
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Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent novel is the psychological thriller Graveyard Love, available from Broken River Books.