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.