From around the year 1800 to the present day, the British have taken an unhealthy interest in murder.
Over two centuries, this fascination has appeared in journalism, theatre, tourism... and particularly, in the whole body of detective fiction. Its development went hand-in-hand with what we might call 'civilization' -- gas-lighting, a police force, industrialization, life in the city -- everything that allowed people to feel safe from nature and its dangers.
If you'd been an eighteenth-century Briton, you'd probably have lived in a village, and your greatest fears would have been dying of disease or famine. In the nineteenth century, it's likely that you'd have moved into a town. Life there might have been cleaner and more convenient, but there was a drawback: you'd no longer know your neighbours.
And so, in the cities, the Victorians began to have the luxury -- for a 'luxury' it is -- of obsessing about something as inherently unlikely as getting murdered. This new fear, therefore, went along with paranoia, and anxiety, and neurosis, and all the other things we 'enjoy' about modern life.
Here are six stand-out works of British crime:
The so-called 'Sensation' novels of the 1860s, by authors such as Wilkie Collins, were intended to create actual physical sensations in their readers. Addictively readable, those of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, author of Lady Audley, were condemned by contemporaries as "Harrowing the Mind, making the Flesh Creep, Causing the Hair to Stand on end... and generally Unfitting the Public for the Prosaic Avocations of Life."
Lady Audley's Secret is not technically a murder story because -- plot spoiler! -- our anti-heroine gets away with attempted murder. Both in real life and in fiction, the police detective, with his lowly social status, was an unwelcome intruder in high society. So in many mysteries the detective role is played by an amateur. In Lady Audley's case, it's a young relative.
Sensation novels provided a wonderful alternative, particularly for women, to straight-laced Victorian middle-class life. In them, women were often bad, mad, dangerous and murderous. "Female anger, frustration and sexual energy" bursts out of these stories, writes the critic Elaine Showalter, and often "the death of a husband comes as a welcome release, and women escape from their families through illness, madness, divorce, flight and, ultimately, murder."
The gentle pleasures of the inter-War 'Golden Age' of detective fiction seemed just the thing to soothe jangled nerves after World War One. Holmes and adventurers like John Hannay had employed gallant, hands-on, occasionally violent, methods of crime-solving which seemed out of place in a mourning world. Readers turned next to a generation of female writers who made detection into a genteel art rather like knitting. Step forward Agatha Christie's more sedentary sleuths: Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple.
Agatha Christie's breakthrough novel, Roger Ackroyd, has a beautifully crafted plot with the completely shocking twist of -- spoiler alert! -- an unreliable narrator. This was widely considered unsporting, but Roger Ackroyd was the foundation of Christie's success.
She was working within the genre of the country house detective novel with a closed circle of suspects which had originally been inspired by the real-life murder of a little boy that took place at Rode Hill House, Wiltshire, in 1860. By 1927, though, no one really regrets Ackroyd's death. All the violence and horror has morphed into entertainment.
Lucy Worsley is the author of The Art of the English Murder (Pegasus Books).