Gender Differences in Locked Room Mysteries (part 4/5)

Now if John Dickson Carr is regarded as the greatest exponent of the locked room mystery, it must be acknowledged that in its hey-day, the Golden Age, there were four acknowledged Queens of Crime whose writing overshadowed that of their contemporaries. Their dominance however tended to be in the longer form – the novel – rather than the short story, though all were formidable exponents of that more concise form too. But it is to the short story form that the locked room mystery is perhaps best suited and reaches its apogee. We should therefore consider whether there are any differences in the approaches taken by male and female authors in the short story locked room mystery, away from the more expansive form of the novel where women were the dominant gender.

The first point which becomes apparent is that the locked room mystery format is very much a male dominant genre. More than eight out of ten locked room mysteries were written by male authors. Women accounted for only one in ten with the remainder being co-written by male/female partnerships.

This overwhelming majority indicates that the locked mystery form appeals more to the male writer (we cannot deduce any conclusions about the gender of the readership from this sample). This may be a reflection of an inherent male bias in interest toward plot and puzzle rather than character – which is better developed in the longer novel form and without the sometimes contrived logic necessary to explain how and why the murderer chose a complicated way to kill the victim when a simpler approach might have been more certain.

The first observation I would make about the male writers’ solutions compared to the female writers’ solutions is the greater use of the murder from outside approach. 39% of male writers’ solutions were of this type compared with only 27% of female writers’ solutions. So it would appear that women writers preferred not to use the most common solution as much as it was used by male authors.

However, male authors did use a wider variety of solutions overall – they used all ten types considered whereas the women authors concentrated on only five of the ten possible solutions: not a murder; poison; kills then murderer is seen entering and leaving; kills from outside and other. Certainly with the exception of murders from outside and the entering and leaving to fool witnesses solutions, women used these three preferred methods significantly more (64% of their mystery solutions) than male authors (a mere 16%).

Indeed, poisoning is the most used solution by women authors (28%). Perhaps there is some truth in the hoary old adage that poison is a woman’s method?

Male authors’ favoured solutions, after murder from outside, are mechanical traps and killing before being observed entering and leaving. Together these three solutions account for 69% – more than two thirds – of all stories. So, overall, male writers are, in fact, more predictable in their choice of solution with the remaining seven types accounting for only a handful of examples each totalling less than a third of all stories.

The five male/female writing partnerships and produce very different solutions. They favour mechanical traps in more than half their stories (perhaps reflecting the male influence) but 29% (nearly one-third) are poisonings (perhaps reflecting the female influence. Interestingly they use unbreakable alibis to a much greater extent (14%) – which is seven times as frequently as male authors (2%). Is there something about the unbreakable alibi that makes it appeal to the mixed gender teams when it does not appeal to either male or female authors alone.

I have no wish to be drawn into speculation as to whether the fact that three of the five mixed gender writing partnerships are actually husband and wife teams has any bearing on their seeming preference for unbreakable alibis when compared to solo authors or same gender writing partnerships.

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6 responses to “Gender Differences in Locked Room Mysteries (part 4/5)

  1. But it is to the short story form that the locked room mystery is perhaps best suited and reaches its apogee.

    Whoa, whoa, slow down, Mark — can’t agree with you there! Ah, we’ll go around citing examples one way or the other all year (Rintaro Norizuki’s ‘The Lure of the Green Door’ says you, to which I reply He Who Whispers; you throw Agatha Christie’s ‘The Dream’ at me, and I counter with Rim of the Pit by Hake Talbot…). A great impossible crime shot story is surely a wonder to behold, but the scope for extra context and the added complexity allowed by the longer form surely allows for a more baffling scheme. I’ll take both, of course, but to blithely assert that the novel represents a lesser form — your coat, sir!

    I’m interested in the prevalence of mechanical traps in mixed gender partnerships, too — especially gviven that not a single female author appears to have concevied of the use of one of her own. I’m not a fan of them myself, especially given how they’ve becomes a sort of sine qua non to get around ingenuity in modern attempts at the form (guns hidden in asthma inhalers, nooses dropping from boxes, etc). One wonders if something about collaborating stymies the creative effect…!

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    • I will defer to your greater knowledge in depth in this particular field JJ. I took greater interest in them in part because of your enthusiasm so will think about whether some rephrasing is called for. Have you any thoughts on why this seems to be a genre where males are so dominant?

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      • I wonder, and I talked about this in a post recently, whether female authors did in fact represent the majority of GAD authors. Rough straw poll: in The Golden Age of Murder, the members of the Detection Club shown in the front numbers twice as many men as women, selections of GAD novels from those in the know — like here — again show a majority of male authors, and even (less rigorously) the BL crime classics have an overwhelming male:female ratio (in novels as well as short stories…I checked!).

        So part of me wonders if the “Queens of Crime” nomenclature is responsible for the impression that a great many more women than men wrote GAD fiction when in fact it’s not true. I supose that then raises the question of why so many men wrote GAD…hmmm.

        The proportion of male writers becoming even greater in locked rooms is possibly then just a standard filtering effect: proportionally few of the GAS novels and short stories written were locked room tales, so the number of each gender attempting them would be expected to represent the same proportional tailing — if fewer women wirte GAD, and fewer authors overall write locked rooms, then it stands to reason (there’s a statistical model and everything!) that fewer women will write locked rooms…

        Part of the male dominance here might also be that a small number of male writers have produced a large number of the novels and short stories routinely anthologised and discussed: John Dickson Carr/Carter Dickson, Edward D. Hoch, G.K. Chesteron, Melville Davisson Post, Jacques Futrelle, etc. In the same way that Christie’s 80 books were the work of only one writer (unless someone wants to start a conspiracy theory) but give a proportional biad to GAD works that are in print being by women, maybe the (over-)commitment of certain male authors in this subgenre is equally responsible here.

        Anyway, I’ve gone on. Thanks for your kind words about my freakish obsession with impossible crimes, hope the above isn’t taking too many liberties with your blog!

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      • Good point(s). I guess What I am worrying away at is along the lines that the authors whose success has been greatest/longest have been more women than men when considering novels. This in spite of the majority of authors being male. Yet in the locked room genre, and particularly in the locked room short story form, the split goes the other way and it becomes more male dominated, not only in volume, but also in those stories regatded as the best quality. I’m scrabbling around trying to account for this. I will have another think about how to encapsulate this succinctly in the text. Thanks for helping me clarify my thinking on the topic.

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      • But you sort of answer your own question, I feel. There are more male authors than female authors. If every author writes one locked room novel in their career, there are therefore more locked room novels by male authors than female authors. Same with short stories. The prevalence of male authors in locked rooms is therefore due to there being more male authors to write them. All it takes is a Carr or a Rawson or a Wallace to write more than a handful and you appear to have male-skewed output.

        This in no way precludes women writing some stone cold classics that stand the test of time better than a lot of those by their male counterparts — Death of Jezebel, Mr Splitfoot, And Then There Were None. It just means that, as a smaller and smaller proportion of books are genuinely timeless classics, it’s understandable that the smaller proportion of books by women get cut down in accordance with ratio.

        It’s the same idea as female authors being consdiered “more successful” because so many GAD novels by women remained in print compared to those by men…proportionally, a huge chunk of that was Christie’s output, which obviously skews things, because if all we had was Sayer’s 12 books and tey’s 8 then it wouldn’t seem quite such a success, I’m willing to wager…

        Feel free to ignore me when you get bored!

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      • Not bored at all but I think we have reached the crux of the matter. For some reason, given broadly the same male:female ratio in the novel form and the locked room short story form we find that women authors (esp Christie) have enjoyed greater success – measuring that be continued reprints (pre British Library stepping in) – in the novel form whereas male authors (with some help from Carr etc) have enjoyed greater lasting success (measured by repeated inclusion in compilations) in the locked room short story form. I find this whole thing fascinating even if the reasons are likely to remain elusive.

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