How did the phrase “The Butler Did It” come to be such a cliched convention in mystery stories?
Did the butler – or another servant in the household of a wealthy murder victim – really “do it”? And in enough mystery novels to deserve the cliche? Any of you mystery readers remember a time when the butler committed the murder in a novel?
So I started my search (after all, there are a lot of novels out there I’m not familiar with; no one can read them all) for stories with the butler as the culprit. Guess what? There is only one famous mystery novel I could find that uses the butler (more about this below). Even if there are more examples that I’ve overlooked, they seem too obscure for internet search engines.
Do we have a cliche that doesn’t deserve the name?
Most mystery aficionados agree that Golden Age mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, author of over a dozen mystery novels in the “had-I-but-known” female-centric flashback style, was the author who started (and ended) the trope. While none of her books ever contained the words “the butler did it,” one of her wildly-popular mystery novels (SPOILER ALERT), The Door (1930) has the butler as the murderer. It was written in a hurry (for the specifics behind this, check out this great post), but still sold very well, as she was a household name by that point.
Even before the publication of The Door, however, Golden Age critics were poised to decry the use of a mere servant as a murderer. S.S. Van Dine’s “20 rules for writing mystery stories” (1928) has it as no-no #11:
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 worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
Notice the phrase “a decidedly worth-while person.” In the remnants of the still class-rigid twenties (containing echoes of its Victorian antecedents), servants weren’t considered good material for chief antagonist in an intellectual whodunnit. Why not? In terms of both perception and reality, working-class servants didn’t have the same education (and therefore, it was assumed, the intellect) as their masters, so the ability to outwit their betters was an absurd notion.
But let’s address why servants would naturally come under suspicion.
Servants have long been held as shady characters. For the Victorians, they were an unavoidable fact of life, even in a middle-class household: they fetched the water, stoked the fires, cooked the meals, did the laundry, and provided a barrier to the inconveniences of the outside world. To some degree, they inhabited separate spaces: separate stairs, entrances, and rooms to which they were relegated whenever possible. Despite this separation, the duties of servants made them ever-present in the family spaces.
So convenience had its price, namely, in lack of privacy. Servants knew everything, saw everything – the family’s petty quarrels, the little personal embarrassments of day-to-day living – all while being treated as second-class citizens and paid a pittance. They were the outsiders, with only the fragile loyalty gained from the employer’s purse.
No wonder nineteenth-century families were nervous.
With this in mind, servants would be obvious suspects when a crime was committed, and we know that in the Golden Age of mystery fiction, the obvious solution was to be avoided at all costs (sometimes at the cost of a coherent plot line).
But is this the only reason why there are so few butler-murderers in mysteries? “Country-house” mysteries have long been rife with corrupt servants, spying servants, pregnant parlor maids, and so on. But we seem to have a glass ceiling, if you will, for a servant, even an elevated servant such as a butler, as an arch-villain. Why?
Perhaps because such a cunning adversary might lend the servant class a power that no middle/upper-class reader of the time would have been comfortable with. We’re talking about a criminal who could match wits with the master of the house, and the detective. Someone who – gasp – “almost” gets away with it. Just a theory.
However you might explain the faux-cliche of “the butler did it,” do you think the mechanism still applies today, or are we so far removed from the necessity of servants (with our modern domestic conveniences, such as dishwashers and washing machines) that a modern mystery could have the butler “do it”? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Until next time,