Professor Bran Nicol
Bran Nicol is Professor of English Literature and Head of the School of Literature and Languages. He joined the University of Surrey in 2012, having previously been Director of the Centre for Studies in Literature at the University of Portsmouth. His books include The Private Eye (Reaktion, 2013), Postmodern Fiction: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2009), and Stalking (Reaktion, 2006), which was translated into Italian, Japanese and Korean, Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction (Palgrave, second edition, 2004), and two edited collections: Postmodernism and the Contemporary Novel (Edinburgh University Press, 2002) and Crime Culture (Bloomsbury, 2010). His main interests are in modern and contemporary British, European and American fiction, literary theory, and 'crime culture', and he has presented his research in these areas at universities around the world. He welcomes applications from postgraduate students in any of these areas. He is currently working on the 'Novel Transmissions: The Global Novel' project which brings together specialists in nineteenth-century, twentieth- and twenty-first century fiction at both the University of Surrey and the University of São Paulo, Brazil, funded by The University Global Partnership Network (UGPN). His teaching at undergraduate and master's level has reflected these research interests, including modules on postmodernism, literary theory, psychoanalysis, and detective fiction. He has supervised PhD students working on a wide range of topics in the areas of contemporary British and American fiction, literary theory, and literature and translation.
Areas of specialism
University roles and responsibilities
- Head of the School of Literature and Languages
Senior Lecturer in English Literature
International visitors to benefit from student translations of Watts Gallery – Artists' Village guidebook
Internationally renowned writer and film-maker Iain Sinclair joins Surrey as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence
Critically acclaimed author Monica Ali to remain as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence
My main interests are in modern and contemporary British, European and American fiction, literary theory, and 'crime culture'. I welcome applications from postgraduate students in any of these areas.
Please note: e-versions of some of the publications listed on the tab on the right can be found on my academia.edu webpage: https://surrey.academia.edu/BranNicol
Or here: https://www.surrey.ac.uk/englishandlanguages/staff_list/complete_staff_list/bran_nicol/
Analysing a wide range of films, including classics such as The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, Chinatown, and The Long Goodbye, Nicol traces the history of the private eye movie from the influential film noirs of the 1940s, through innovative 1970s neo-noir cinema, to the presence of the private eye in movie mythology today. He reveals that although these films are exciting thrillers, they are nevertheless preoccupied by ?domestic? issues: work, home and love. Rather than fearless investigation, Nicol argues, the private eye?s job is really about unveiling the private lives and private spaces of others, an achievement which comes at the expense of his own private life.
Combining a lucid introduction to an under-explored tradition in movie history with a novel approach to the detective in film, this book casts new light on the private worlds of the private eye.
Leading international scholars from the fields of literary and cultural studies analyze a range of literature and film, from neglected examples of film noir and ?true crime?, crime fiction by female African American writers, to reality TV, recent films such as Elephant, Collateral and The Departed, and contemporary fiction by J. G. Ballard, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Margaret Atwood. They offer groundbreaking interpretations of new elements such as the mythology of the hitman, technology and the image, and the cultural impact of ?senseless? murders and reveal why crime is a powerful way of making sense of the broader concerns shaping modern culture and society.
In Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (1966), Patricia Highsmith?s ?how-to? book (and a
work of characteristically displaced autobiography), the author describes the genesis of her 1964
novel The Two Faces of January:
"My impetus for this book was strong but quite fuzzy at the beginning. I wanted to
write a book about a young, footloose American (I called him Rydal [Keener]) in
search of adventure, not a beatnik but a rather civilized and intelligent young man,
and not a criminal, either. And I wanted to write about the effect on this young
man of encountering a stranger who closely resembles his own domineering
Despite her evident pride that the novel ended up on ?the bestseller list in England? (Highsmith,
Plotting 11), The Two Faces of January was poorly received by Joan Kahn, her editor at the U.S.
publisher Harper and Brothers, and then by reviewers, all of whom found the plot?especially
the question of Keener?s motive for his subsequent involvement with Chester MacFarland, the
older man who leads him into crime?too implausible. In demanding a rewrite Kahn insisted:
?The book makes sense only if there is a homosexual relationship between Rydal and Chester?
(Wilson 230). Apparently furious at the prospect of rewriting the book, Highsmith nevertheless
complied and, according to her biographer, Andrew Wilson, began to ?completely rethink the
motivation of her characters.? In doing so, however, she tried even harder to ?eliminate any
suspicion of a homosexual relationship between the two men? (Wilson 231).
Deducing a homosexual motive is a temptation to which readers and interpreters of
Highsmith?s work often succumb. The flaw of Anthony Minghella?s otherwise excellent film
adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), for example, is its decision to make Ripley?s latent
homosexuality manifest. ?Queering? him in this way is a mistake, precisely because it provides a
motivation for Ripley?s behavior that is never apparent in the novel and turns him into someone
with whom viewers can identify. Ripley?s attitude toward Dickie Greenleaf is darker and more
complicated. As Slavoj }i~ek has put it,
"Minghella?s Ripley makes clear what?s wrong with trying to be more radical than
the original by bringing out its implicit, repressed content. By looking to fill in the
void, Minghella actually retreats from it. Instead of a polite person who is at the
same time a monstrous automaton, experiencing no inner turmoil as he commits
his crimes, we get the wealth of a personality, someone full of psychic traumas,
someone whom we can, in the fullest meaning of the term, understand."
Motivation is rarely clear-cut in Highsmith. In fact, perhaps the most fascinating mystery in each
of her novels is about the personalities of the characters she creates. Although we identify with
their predicament and remain absorbed in their web of intrigue, their identities remain strangely
opaque. Arguably, this is also true of their sexual identities. This essay aims, therefore, to
suggest not that homosexuality is irrelevant to Highsmith?s fiction, but rather that the obscurity
of the question of motive in her fiction makes it more profitable to consider its overall
homosocial context?that is, the ?social bonds between persons of the same sex? (Sedgwick,
Between 1). To do so, it will interrogate Highsmith?s relation to tropes of crime fiction and
gothic, and point to her significance as a chronicler of the late-twentieth-century world
In the following chapters, I locate the authors? use of familiar Gothic tropes in Mark Z. Danielewski?s House of Leaves (2000), Bret Easton Ellis? Lunar Park (2005), JJ Abrams? and Doug Dorst?s S. (2013) and Zachary Dodson?s Bats of the Republic (2015) as a way of situating the reader in familiar territory. These tropes anchor the reader?s navigation through complex narrative structures. It is then possible to identify the moment at which the reader becomes conscious of their direct involvement in the storyworld, an affective and physical experience that can be conceptualised through the Lacanian term extimacy. Spanning both the interior of the print novel and external digital platforms that expand the storyworld, I conceptualise the reader?s experience using Garrett Stewart?s (1997) ?Gothic of reading? to underpin the process of activation a reader of Gothic fiction experiences. Consequently, I argue that the reader is no longer a mere consumer of entertainment, but an investigator, collaborator, code-breaker, and sometimes even a translator. The Gothic, it seems, is the ideal mode to capture both the anxieties of the digital present whilst harnessing recognisable forms to ease readers into the demands of the multimodal novel.