So, I am about one-third of the way through the ouvre of Agatha Christie, and while I am noticing plot-recycling like never before (Evil Under the Sun is basically the same story as Death on the Nile, for instance) I am also coming to appreciate the ways in which Dame Christie created a world for her characters to live in. I am also watching the Dr. Who cannon in my relaxation/ sitting-up-with-the-dog-who’s-eaten-chocolate-to-make-sure-he-doesn’t-die time and I am struck by the same thing. The writers of the Whoniverse have it relatively easier, they have been building on their world since the 1960s, and also have all of time and space to fool around with. So if they want to reference a previous doctor, they can just pick an alien and be done with it.
I think that what Christie does is slightly different, insofar as she was working alone, and was limited (if you can call it that) by England between WWI, and the 1970s (although that was naturally limited further by whenever she was writing). I have noticed a few times that AC includes incidental asides that have exactly no bearing on the case – which is notable for her, most seemingly unrelated quips are brought in at the end of the novel by Poirot/Marple/Tommy+Tuppence as a key moment of deduction – like in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe, when Julia Olivera references Miss Van Schulyer, or in Appointment with Death when Nadine Boynton references Poirot turning a blind eye in the Murder on the Orient Express.
At first I thought these little references were a bit too coy and cutesy, a reward for the ‘real’ readers. And they might have been from AC’s point of view. But I think that a lesson might be learnt from this style of writing. One of my goals as an historian is to recreate the worlds in which people lived. One of the most rewarding, and most difficult parts of writing my dissertation is imagining how 19th century Londoners, Dubliners, Corkonians, Mancuinians, Liverpudlians, Glasgwegians, New Yorkers, Cherokees and Choctaws would have experienced reports of the famine. Were they shocked? Did some people cry, upon reading reports of abject suffering? Why did they donate so much money to famine relief? At any rate, elegantly conveying through prose the world in which people lived, read, and reacted is a rewarding challenge for me, and reading AC recently has made me think anew about how I can employ prose to create that world for my readers. Of course, I am even more limited than AC – I have to confine myself to the actual past, but as proponents of speculative history have reminded us, sometime when the sources aren’t there, we have to do our best to critically imagine the worlds we are studying. I am working on the Dublin chapter, and having done much of the theoretical work on Irish nationalism and the famine, I am now trying to describe what it was like for Dubliners to read about the suffering and death of their own countrymen. It is a whole bunch of fun to write.