The Butler Did It

In Cecil’s recent article, The Butler Did It, we find the origin of the Butler “doing it” in detective fiction. I.e., committing that crime most foul, Murder. But Cecil goes to pains to point out the first writers to actually cast the butler as the baddie don’t actually use the phrase “the butler did it”.

So this begs a related question: Where did that phrase first appear and how did it evolve into a cliche? Anyone?

A couple more noteworthy instances of the butler “doing it” come to mind.

Sometime in or around the late 1970s there was an above-average made-for-TV movie on one of the U. S. networks. I suspect it was meant as the pilot of a series which never got picked up, though it was way better than a good many police shows of the era. It concerned a not-especially-attractive middle-aged woman who was a police detective. A quirk of hers was that her office looked a bit like a greenhouse, with potted plants all around.

In the course of her investigation of the murder of a millionaire, she marvels at the many talents of the head of his domestic staff. Among other things, the man is a gifted ice sculptor. IIRC, he was played by Fritz Weaver. Unfortunately, Googling “Fritz Weaver” and “filmography” didn’t turn up the title of the movie, at least not before I gave up looking.

It finally turned out that Weaver was actually an extremely wealthy and cultured man who had only posed as a domestic servant so that he could become a member of the household and extract his revenge.

In one of those end-of-the-show scenes where the hero or heroine explains how the mystery was figured out, the woman detective suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and began laughing. The last line in the movie: “I just realized…the butler did it.”

Attention should also be given to the recent film Gosford Park. There a murder is committed twice (you’ll have to see it for yourself), and it turns out that the culprits, although not butlers, are well-respected and trusted servants.

There also comes to mind an old porn movie which was advertised with the slogan “the bulter did it–to everyone!”

Ponder, I think “the butler did it” became a cliche not because a character in a book said the line, but because people used the phrase to describe (and dismiss) books. It’s a cliche the same way “boy meets girl” is a cliche for romantic comedies or “somebody done somebody wrong” is a cliche for country music.

<typical bookstore conversation>
Person 1: Have you read Mary Rinehart’s latest mystery?
Person 2: Oh, it was just like all the rest – the butler did it.
</typical bookstore conversation>

That said, I think that it took a writer like Rinehart to turn the plot into a cliche. She pursued the same market that petty moralists of the Victorian Age or Harlequin romances pursue today. And, as Cecil says, it took a Rinehart churning out tons of popular, “low-brow” fiction to fix it in the public’s mind as a cliche.

Why didn’t you try here?:

Um, Cecil, don’t you read the Boards? Or do a search before you write a column?

If you did, you would have found the Was it always the butler? thread.
In that thread, the estimable samclem, resident word origin maven, explained that the reason “The expression “the butler did it” is commonly attributed to novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart” is that she is the first to use it in print - but not until 1938.

I also referenced the Van Dine rules, which clearly show that by 1928, two years before The Door, the notion of using a servant as the murderer was already a risible cliche.

I agree with paperbackwriter that the phrase “the butler did it” came from users deriding bad, cliche-filled forgettable English mysteries.

But it seems likely that these mysteries are part of the great mass of lost British least-common-denominator whodunits written in the previous decade or two to 1928. It is highly doubtful that Rinehart originated the phrase or else there would be no mystery to unravel about its origin.

Cecil, do you perhaps want to make a few tiny adjustments to your column to reflect this info?

The article reminded me of how in Frankenstein the family maid - I think her name is Justine - is blamed for the death of Victor’s younger brother, William, and subsequently hung. Perhaps this is a related version of the accusal motif?

Similarily, nowhere in the text of the A.C. Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories does he ever say “Come Watson, the game’s afoot”. Yet that is commonly remembered as the quintissential Holmes remark!

Possibly people are remembering this from the various movies made from these books, many of which did include this phrase.

Actually, I believe that much of what we think of as quintissential Holmes - the cape and deeerstalker cap, “the game’s afoot”, etc., owes more to William Gillette than Conan Doyle. Gillette starred as Holmes in plays all over the world, and in one of the earliest Holmes films.

From “The Abbey Grange,” which is in The Return of Sherlock Holmes:

Not the exact quote, but close enough. Admittedly, he appears to have only said it once, so it’s not exactly right to remember it today as some kind of catch phrase of Holmes’s.


As I noted when we discusdsed this on the Board a little while back, in the Anthony Schaffer Play Whodunit? the Inspector’s last line is "This is one case where the butler definitely did do it. Shaffer wrote the play Sleuth, as well as the creenplays for Frenzy, Death on the Nile, and, of course, Sleuth. I guess he wanted to have a play where the butler really did do it (even though it was really only some one dressed as a butler).

Someone has already mentioned Gosford Park. I got the feeling that GP was really a serious examination of what it really would have been like if the butler had done it. The film examines just those class-conscious issues Cecil mentions in his column.

Actually Unca Cecil is WAY off on this one. You want a novel in which the main murder is committed by the butler?

Try “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dosteovsky.

Okay, technically he wasn’t the butler. But he was the victim’s male house servant.

Fifteen Iguana

Exapno. YOu said

Much as I enjoy your flattery, I sometimes get it wrong. In this case, I got it wrong one and one-half times. Let me explain.

There are a few obscure web sites that credit MRR in the 1910-20 period. They’re wrong, and I corrected myself after posting that info.

When I posted the “Fred Shapiro” finding of a MRR 1938 cite, I was quoting someone from a personal email, who I trusted. The info, it turns out, was almost correct. There is a 1938 cite that Fred Shapiro has. But MRR didn’t say it. I’m trying to find out right now where it was used in that year. Wating on a message from Fred.

I’ve always posted in good faith. Sometimes, I post in haste, sometimes I post and later info turns up. In this case, I posted the correct date, but the wrong person. But in good faith.

So, Cecil is still correct that MRR didn’t do it.

(Maybe the old guy is smarter than we give him credit for) :slight_smile:

And the 1938 cite was found by NIgel Rees(?), and appeared in a 1938 Punch cartoon.

Might this give some support to the people who suggest that it is based on the British mystery novels of the previous 10-20 years?

And the 1938 cite is from Nigel Rees, and is the caption for a Punch cartoon.

MIght that lend support to the British murder novel theory?

samclem, you break my heart. I trust your word on these matters more than I do that old fraud Cecil. :slight_smile:

As you have noted in the past, popular sayings don’t often wait decades before they make it into print, and cartoons are particularly known for using currently vogue notions as captions.

However, Damon Runyon’s “What, No Butler” was part of his short story collection, Furthermore, which was published in 1938, possibly explaining the timing. That’s not one of the Runyon books I own so I don’t know how relevant the story is beyond the title.

Do we know when other related words like “whodunit” entered the language?

I see that that column has rounded up the usual suspects…

Thanks Exapno Mapcase, I was a little bit annoyed that we did not got much of a mention, so I was going to point the thread to Cecil, but you beat me to it!

On the other hand, I am glad that Cecil got on the case! :slight_smile:

I just want to congratulate Exapno Mapcase on her name. I love it. It lifts obscurity to a new level!

“Somewhere in the classroom is maybe one person who will learn about this stuff if it kills him, and if it kills him enough, he’ll become a professor.” - Joe Amadson

Fifteen Iguana

That short story was originally published in Collier’s August 5, 1933. I also don’t know if the phrase appeared there.

I could run up to my local library this afternoon, but I’m lazy. I’ll perhaps do it tomorrow after work. Assuming they have the issue. Just checked. They do.

I am by no means an expert on this topic, but I have a computer with Internet accessibility, which I suppose gives me license to comment.

In considering the origin of the phrase, “The butler did it!” I find it more likely that it was an expression in a popular medium than in a book, unless the book was a mega-hit. In the earlier part of the century, however, other forms of media entertainment were more popular, having the veneer of “new experiences.” I refer here to the movie, the television show, and the radio program. It seems quite likely to me that it could have originated in one of these – I know that there were a very popular series of radio shows involving crime dramas, and they led to the creation of a television show or two. Perhaps there is a source for these venues that might be able to enlighten us?

I can only offer a link to the Old Radio Script Collection ( Hopefully someone else will be better informed.

You blew part of this one Cecil. “One of the earliest was the writer who largely created the genre, Arthur Conan Doyle.” I’ve found Doyle to be an amusing author of pulp fiction. But any schoolboy could tell you, the father of the modern detective was Edgar Allan Poe.