The Politics of Secrecy and Publicity:
The Functions of Hidden Stories in
Some Recent British Mystery Fiction
Narrating a story is one of the most fundamental and powerful means man possesses of ordering and interpreting the world. During the eighteenth century, the novel, as William Ray has shown (1–23), came to be considered as a medium that—by its combination of truth and fiction, history and story—both represented and shaped the structure of social reality and in which the act of narration was endowed with the authority of integrating private experience and collective reality. Moreover, the novel foregrounded this narrative act by being self-consciously a story about a story. It can be argued that classic detective fiction, as a late spin-off of the mainstream novel during the nineteenth century, perfected this ordering function of narration and preserved it far into the twentieth century, when the serious novel had long begun to problematize its efficacy. In fact, classic detective fiction is constituted by the very process and problem of storytelling. It foregrounds the centrality of narration by employing the principle of secrecy as the motivating force for the construction of its stories, thus emphatically basing the plot development on the cognitive dimension and on the power inherent in secrecy and cognition,1 as this plot is acted out in the contest between detective and criminal for control over narrating or concealing the story of the crime. In this essay, I will, first, sketch an abstract model of the role of story and narration in detective fiction and, second, discuss some interesting modifications of this role in three examples, by Agatha Christie, John Le Carré, and Ruth Rendell, that demonstrate that the function of the secret story remains constitutive even in extreme variations of the classic formula.
Every narrative text is constituted by the dialectical constellation of story and