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It’s the biggest cliché in mystery writing. But where did the cliché originate? Were any fictional butlers ever actually revealed as murderers? Judging from the phrase’s cultural resonance, you’d think the early mystery scene was seething with hatchet-wielding manservants. An investigation of the evidence, however, reveals another story entirely. The butler was framed.
The concept of “the butler did it” is commonly attributed to Mary Roberts Rinehart. Her otherwise forgettable 1930 novel, The Door, is notable for (spoiler alert) the ending, in which the butler actually is the villain. (The actual phrase “the butler did it,” however, never appears in the text.)
While suspicion had fallen on butlers with some regularity in earlier mystery fiction, only one previous author placed the knife (or in this case the pistol) directly in the butler’s hand: “The Strange Case of Mr Challoner” by Herbert Jenkins, published as part of the collection Malcolm Sage: Detective in 1921. It was The Door, however, that locked the cliché into the imagination of the reading public.
The Door struck such a resonating chord with readers because Rinehart was Sue Grafton-level famous during the Golden Age of Mystery Writing, which flourished between the two world wars. Rinehart shot to fame on the back of The Circular Staircase, published in 1907, which sold well over 1m copies and remains in print to this day. By the time Rinehart wrote The Door, in 1930, she’d been a household name for 23 years, with several bestsellers under her belt. Rinehart, generally a clever and careful plotter, wrote The Door quickly while recovering from an illness in a hospital. Her two sons had just launched a new publishing house, Farrar and Rinehart, and were hoping for an early commercial success. So Rinehart, ever the obliging mother, broke her long-standing publishing contract with Doubleday, cranked out The Door at top speed, pinned the crime on the butler, and gave her sons the bestseller they craved.
And in the process, she broke a tacit law of crime fiction already in place. Just one year earlier, SS Van Dine, noted art critic and mystery writer, published a series of rules for would-be crime authors in a much-quoted essay. Number 11 reads, in part:
“A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worthwhile person – one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.”
So by the time The Door hit the shelves, murdering butlers were already considered out-of-bounds, despite only one – one! – previously published book in which the butler actually pulled the trigger.
Not that it particularly mattered in Rinehart’s case. The Door sold in large numbers and Rinehart went on to churn out some impressive mysteries well into the 1950s. Murdering butlers, however, were doomed. After the commercial success of The Door, the butler was now an easy target for comedians and satirical writers alike who quickly pounced on the butler-as-murderer archetype. Damon Runyon’s 1933 short story “What, No Butler?” is an obvious riff on the cliché and PG Wodehouse’s 1957 comic novel “Something Fishy” was published in the US as “The Butler Did It“. Of course, a wide variety of other fictional servants rose to the occasion and knifed their betters, (also in violation of Van Dine’s rule), but butlers, for better or worse, were now resigned to the back alley of mystery writing.
It seems a pity, for the butler to be so blithely written off as a culprit. He did, after all, launch a particularly long-lasting cliché by barely doing anything at all. The butler should be resurrected as the guilty party and given a proper crime, a real send-off, a murder worth the cliché he began. Until then, this case remains unsolved.
The butler was framed.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Why do we think the butler did it? | Books