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10/17/2014 09:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Six Essential British Murder Mysteries

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:

Maria Marten, or, Murder in the Red Barn (1820s onwards) Maria Marten was a genuine murder victim whose story was widely told and re-told in nineteenth-century England. She was killed in 1827 by William Corder, her former lover, who buried her beneath a local barn in the peaceful Suffolk village of Polstead. His crime was recreated time and time again, in newspaper articles, ballads and on the stage. In London's illegitimate theatres, Maria Marten was typical of the age's wildly popular melodramas. 'Oh, William, behold me on my knees,' says Maria, as she begs for her life. A stage direction follows: 'he dashes her to the earth, and stabs her. She shrieks and falls.' A popular story for more than a century, it became a feature film in 1935.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1852) All right, Bleak House isn't strictly a murder mystery: a killing is just one strand of a plot that's also a diatribe against Britain's legal system. But the novel is undeniably significant in the history of crime fiction. Charles Dickens was extremely interested in London's social condition, and was friends in real life with Inspector Field, one of Scotland Yard's earliest detectives. Dickens put his friend into his story, re-named him as "Inspector Bucket," and has him successfully catch a murderess.
Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1861)

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."

A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1887) In the very first few pages of Sherlock Holmes's life in print, in A Study in Scarlet, we're introduced to his essentials: his obsessive, analytic character, and his application of cutting-edge scientific techniques to detection. We meet him at work in a laboratory, inventing a new chemical test for the identification of blood. He then flabbergasts his future friend, Dr. Watson, be reading the clues in Watson's appearance to deduce that he has recently served in Afghanistan. Holmes emerged fully-formed in 1887 and would go on complaining about the crude methods of the police, and delighting readers, until 1927. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually got bored of Holmes and killed him off, but was forced by public demand to bring him back from the dead for the most perfect of the Holmes novels, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2).
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)

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.

Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935) Best of the Golden Age writers was Dorothy L. Sayers, who fused sharp social commentary with inspired characterization and storytelling. In Gaudy Night, her heroine Harriet Vane, a crime novelist, solves a mystery in a women's college in Oxford, and finally agrees to marry her long-time love, fellow amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. She only agrees on the condition that he won't stifle her, or stop her from writing or having adventures. It's a triumph of feminist writing as well as a wonderful entertainment.

Lucy Worsley is the author of The Art of the English Murder (Pegasus Books).