Impossible Murderers: Agatha Christie
and the Community of Readers
Ina Rae Hark
Peter Hühn in his essay on “The Detective as Reader” notes that “in its elaborately contrived structures, the detective novel … presents a number of entangled writing-and-reading contests that ultimately only serve to demonstrate the superior power of writing (on the aumor's part), a power, moreover, that proves itself in two consecutive ways: in first protecting the stories against being read until the very end, and in finally producing a perfect as well as comprehensive reading” (459). In other words, classic detective stories, those whodunits or “clue-puzzles,” in Stephen Knight's useful designation, initially offer a poststructuralist's dream of unreadable signification, only in the end to locate indeterminacy beyond the text in the deficient reading competency of all competing readers save that ideal decoder, the detective. As Hühn concludes, “mis textual indeterminacy is … only a temporary illusion” because the central premise of the genre turns on the existence of determinate meanings (455).
Detective stories are men readerly texts in fancy dress, teasing us into believing ourselves Barthesian producers of textual meaning only to ask us to sit still while the detective's final explanation turns us into the most passive of consumers. Moreover, they are, according to Tzvetan Todorov, just as readerly as a group of texts, belonging to one of the genres of popular literature mat, should they once be “properly described,” would reveal the best novels as those about which one can find nothing to say (43).
The monumental and apparently undying consumability of Agatha Christie's detective novels has led many commentators to view her as a depressingly successful perfecter of the art of the readerly clue-puzzle. Here we find no characterization, only familiar types to be plugged into the exigencies of the plotting; no potentially destabilizing stylistic flourishes, only flat writing; no awareness of the operations of ideology, only panaceas for what Knight calls the “classic anxious bourgeois class” (133). Apparently substantiating such an