Nathan Ashman on noir and ecological crime

Nathan Ashman is a lecturer in Crime Writing at the University of East Anglia, specialising in crime fiction, American fiction, and eco-criticism, and is currently writing the  Routledge Handbook to Crime Fiction and Ecology.

This is his conversation with Kat Latham, Tamsin Mackay, Rebecca Barrow, and Asun Álvarez.

AA: You’re obviously a lover of literature, but could you tell us a little about what drew you specifically to crime fiction?

NA: Oh dear. A big question, isn’t it? Probably in terms of crime fiction as a genre it goes back to school. I was never really a voracious reader at school, or that interested in reading generally, but I remember we did The Hound of the Baskervilles, probably in year 8 or 9. And it didn’t feel like work. It was all “This doesn’t seem right. This isn’t hard or difficult, but rather fun.” (Laughs). And I had a brilliant teacher who taught in a very interesting way.

But then I didn’t really come into contact with crime fiction again until university, probably, where I did a Crime Fiction module with a lecturer called Bran Nicol, who ended up being my Ph.D. supervisor. And, again, he was just a brilliant teacher. And I think again, with the study of literature, moving into the Ph.D., has felt kind of like I cheated my way by doing genre, by doing crime. It doesn’t feel like I’m doing an equivalent thing to someone who’s studying Shakespeare. (Laughs). I shouldn’t be saying that!

But in terms of what draws you to crime fiction – I don’t know really. That’s the question I start all my crime fiction undergraduate and graduate modules with. And for most people, I think it’s the mystery element of the genre: the fact that it’s a genre that empowers you to search for answers to questions. I think that’s always intellectually stimulating, to have to discover something during the course of reading. But also – I probably have quite Puritan sensibilities – you’re able to touch the darker aspects of humanity somewhat vicariously. And I think that’s always appealing to all of us who read crime fiction – whether we study it or just read it. There’s something particularly about the idea that someone who’s otherwise quite normal could end up doing something terrible, and what it would take for you to be in the same situation. So I think those are the reasons most people fancy the genre: mystery, and a dark sensibility.

AA: So you started writing about American noir to begin with. James Ellroy has been a focus of your interest for some time. Could you tell us a little about that?

He’s a figure who my relationship with changes constantly. He’s somebody that I read when I was just finishing my master’s, so I came to him relatively late, in my early twenties. I’d seen the film Black Dahlia which had come out in 2006, years before, and at the time me and my friends had those unlimited cinema cards and we would go and see all the films. (Laughs). We’d just watch everything, so many types of films. I remember seeing Black Dahlia and thinking it was just dreadful. A dreadful, terrible, terrible film. But I there was something, I think about the iconography of it, about the victims, that just stuck in my consciousness. And I was in a bookshop a few years later and saw the cover and bought it and read  it and was completely transfixed by it.

I think it must have been the era when I was being drawn to American history, particularly post-war American history. I don’t know why. I think there’s a kind of exoticism to it that draws me – it seems just so cinematic and like filmmaking. This is a country where presidents get shot on camera – things completely alien to someone growing up in a town in England. The era compelled me, but I also thought the writing was incredible. So I picked up everything else from that point, and zoomed through it and got obsessed with it.

But in recent years I’ve gained an increasing awareness of me being a white heterosexual male loving these books that are very white and heterosexual and that have a big structure of white power that drives them. I think my writing about Ellroy has changed over the years and is increasingly reflecting that sense of ambivalence towards his work. I still think from a stylistic point of view it’s really ground-breaking and incredible, but as a figure I find myself less and less compelled by him. More and more, the justifications I used to make about race and gender and sexual violence in his novels – I’m becoming less and less persuaded. He’s one of those writers that I’m fascinated by him as an individual, I think as a stylist he’s one of the best writing crime fiction. As an individual I think sometimes ideologically his texts are certainly questionable.

But yes, there’s something about noir that hooks me. I think it’s the bleakness, the nihilism. I know I sound like a very tortured person, but I’m not at all!

AA: For the record, Nathan is the nicest person you can imagine.

BB: He’s the least tortured person I have come across! Can I ask you – the thing about Ellroy is the interplay about true crime and fiction. And it’s interesting that you’re talking about the sociological aspects, the ambivalence that is involved in, if you like, using his fiction. Could you talk a little about that true crime element?

NA: Yeah. I think that’s another reason why I was so interested in his work. It walks that fragile line between fiction and reality. What you often find in his novels is that there will be something outrageous in there and that will end up being the thing that’s true. It’s not always the case, but often reality is stranger than fiction, and he really mines that. And in a way, his novels, particularly the Underworld USA trilogy, map the 1960s America. For me that was a way into that history as well. He always writes about people who are dead, and there is a moral ambiguity involved in that. Because you can’t libel the dead. In his third novel of the Underworld USA trilogy, it was supposed to be based on a real person, a real private eye, which he ended up not doing, because the person was still alive, basically.

But true crime, in terms of your question – are you asking what I think about the morals of mining real events?

BB: The thing that struck me when I was thinking about the title of your book – James Ellroy and Voyeur Fiction –  because I myself have this ambivalence about the kind of crime fiction that seems to be voyeuristic and some it is unpleasantly so, particularly in books in which you have violence towards children and women really brutally depicted. So I’m interested in how you feel about the intersection between crime fiction, crime fact, and voyeurism, and the way we view it as a voyeuristic society.

NA: I think we are all little bit voyeuristic, aren’t we? Freud argued that there is a close link between the desire to look and the desire to know, and I think that’s really true. Crime fiction stimulates a desire to know, and I think part of that is a voyeuristic impulse, which I think is why subjects such as violent crime and sexual crime often become the subjects of those novels. I think there’s times when crime fiction can be overly voyeuristic that I’ve never been into. And the same with horror – I’ve never been into the extremities of the genre, really gory violence, or gratuitous sexual violence. And I think there are times when the genre risks swaying into those areas, basically for titillation. It’s not an area of the genre that appeals to me in any way. At times it gives the genre a slightly bad name, but I don’t think a lot of it is like that. But the genre has a troubled history in terms of framing violence against the female body, and I think that drives a lot of the voyeurism behind quite a swathe of crime novels.  But I think that’s changing a bit now. I don’t know if novels like that are being published to the extent that they were twenty-five years ago. And I think that’s probably a good thing.

For me, it’s a voyeuristic genre in general, whether you are talking about extreme violence or any kind of extreme articulation. But I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it’s a genre based around the search for knowledge. Wanting to find things out. And that’s not only about the mysteries in the novels or texts, but also finding something out about what we are like. What drives us as individuals, as humans, what are our darker sensibilities. I think it’s actually an incredibly human genre, in that it is about people and what people do. That is often more interesting to us than the actual mysteries themselves, the plot-based mystery.

KC: Switching subjects, I wanted to ask you about eco-criticism, because I know that’s an area you’re very interested in. Could you explain what exactly eco-criticism is, and tell us about your interest in it?

NA: It’s so funny, because when I started moving into this area – very, very early on – I got a contract for this book and I started getting messages assuming that I’m the expert in this area. And I feel eco-criticism is very much a developing field and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have the expertise on that subject as I do on hard-boiled or detective noir fiction.

Eco-criticism, broadly speaking, is an area of study that looks to draw out representations of landscape or engagements with the natural world in fiction, but not exclusively. It also encompasses animal studies and petrofiction, which is an emerging field of study in eco-criticism. But essentially it’s about the relationship between humanity and the natural world, and how texts frame that. What it really tries to do is move away from the idea of landscape purely as a metaphor for something else, or as a signifier for something else, actually trying to understand it on its own terms.

An eco-critical reading of The Big Sleep, for instance, might take into account the presence of the oil industry in that novel, the way it crowds at the edges of the text, and what that means. Particularly with The Big Sleep and with noir and hard-boiled fiction, an eco-critical reading might consider how that genre is completely founded on the mobility of the detective, the way that he moves around the city. The automobile and its mobility are very much built into the structure of that genre.

 So what does that tell us about the time period when these texts were made, but also about our understanding of the relationship between oil and fiction? So, as you can see, petrofiction is where most of my thinking is at the moment. It’s been really great doing the collection because it’s widened my understanding of what eco-critical reading can mean. We have some brilliant essays there about all kinds of things, such as plant vegetation in Agatha Christie’s novels. It’s a really fruitful and interesting field of study which opens up a lot of ways of rethinking about contemporary texts and concerns.

AA: Talking about nature and the problems with what we do to nature and that sort of thing is something that has been traditionally taken up by science fiction –  apocalyptic futures and dystopias and things like that. And one of the things about nonfiction and cross-fiction in general is its universality. Also there’s the fact that we still have noir fiction. It started in the 1930s, but we’re still writing it obsessively and reading it obsessively.

Do you think that the intersection of nature and noir has something to do with that? The fact that it’s  about knowledge and now we’re broadening it to an aspect that we hadn’t looked at before?

NA: I think noir is a really contested field in the sense that there’s a few different schools about what noir actually is. Is it a set of texts tied to a specific historical period? Or is it a kind of mutable mood or a parasitic kind of feeling that connects itself to certain moments?

I think it’s Megan Abbott who argues that noir emerges in times of particular scepticism towards political systems. She says that we get it in the Depression era, the 40s and 50, and then we get it again in the 70s after the Watergate scandal, that particular political landscape in the late 60s, early 70s. And then she argues that with domestic noir we’re getting it again because it’s a response to essentially a contemporary world of austerity where public services have been cut and there’s no longer support, for instance, for victims of sexual violence and those kinds of things. So noir becomes the way that we express that scepticism and that against structures of authority and power.

I think noir and climate change, or noir and ecology, are two particularly kind of fruitful meeting points, because I think at the moment there is a lot of scepticism about where we are in relation to climate.

I think we’re going to see a lot of ecological crime novels in the coming years. As you say, historically, it’s been the dystopian novel or the science fiction novel proper that’s been the space in which these questions are examined. But I think the crime novel is starting to move into that territory more and more. Particularly what we see with writers like Carl Hiaasen and Donna Leon who are actively writing ecocritical crime novels, I think that’s going to pick up, and I think noir will certainly be the mode through which a lot of that kind of fear and scepticism and hostility is perhaps expressed. Yeah, I think those two are kind of perfect bedfellows.

So we need somebody to write proper old school noir set against the backdrop of ecological disaster. That’s kind of what something like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is. It’s a private eye novel set in a world where ecological disasters have torn us apart. So the model for it is already there.

I don’t think it would be a particularly new thing, but I think we might see a new kind of renaissance of that kind of mode.

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