Was it always the butler? (Detective novel cliché)

[sub][Hard-boiled detective]
I suspect Jeeves, he was last seen with a back hoe next to the water pipe that took down the SDMB!
[/Hard-boiled detective][/sub]

This is one of the classic cliché’s of the detective novel, but who was the writer most responsible to turn this into the “do that plot and die as an author” level? Or was it really a cliché as we have been lead to believe? Who were the guilty parties on removing the butler from the likely suspects? Or was there a historical reason that then turned into a principle?

I’ve read a host of murder mysteries, and I can’t think of a single one in which a butler actually turned out to be the culprit.

Still, many of the old-fashioned British mysteries (the Agatha Christie/Dorothy Sayers type) were set in mansions or on palatial estates. Raymond Chandler always mocked such mysteries, calling them “Murder in the Petunias.” The murder victim always seemed to be a wealthy aristocrat, and the suspects were usually upper-crust themselves. In such settings, there were always butlers, valets, chambermaids, etc. And since there was almost always a butler in such stories, “the butler did it” struck a familiar chord with mystey readers.

This gets discussed in mystery circles from time to time without a definitive answer coming out of it.

The consensus appears to be that it comes not from any specific author, and certainly from no famous one, but from the slew of totally forgotten 1900-1920 mysteries of the type that astorian mentions. The use of a servant as a murderer in those novels was seen as kind of a cheat, since servants almost never were given any personality or character, so were not legitimate objects of suspicion. Christie could get away with making anyone, even a narrator, a least likely suspect that you had to take seriously, but these early hacks just did it as a way of surprising the reader with no basis in the story.

“The butler did it” was therefore a dismissive phrase, a way of saying that the author failed to carry out the implied contract with the reader, that the book did not rise above hackdom. It slopped over onto all mysteries making them a sub-genre, below and without pretensions to real literature. Similar to what Theodore Sturgeon later complained about when he claimed that outsiders invariably judged science fiction solely by its worst examples.

Exapno Mapcase did it to the thread! :cool:

I still wonder if we can find the names of some of those hacks.

Maybe I can resurrect it, since I left something out.

In 1928, S. S. Van Dine, who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries and was a very big deal in the 1920’s, published an article called Twenty rules for writing detective stories. Hardly any major mystery writers took him seriously all the way through, mostly because his “rules” made absolutely no sense for anybody but himself (“A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations.” - yeah, right) , but some of the principles were basic enough to be generally applied. The relevant ones were:

And #20 gives a list of devices that were obviously cliches even then:

Given how little Van Dine’s own mysteries are thought of today, and he was a bestseller and the epitome of the American mystery for several years, the 1920s must have been one weird decade for mysteries.

I know that I"ve contributed a name to a thread that resembles this one. But it doesn’t appear in a search.

Perhaps it was in the missed content period. Or perhaps I did it over at Dave Wilton’s etymology board. But I think it was here at the Dope. I’ll try to find it.

I had a specific lady author from the 1900-1920 period. Best I can do for now.

Spoilers, of course.

In the play Whodunit by Anthony Schaffer (He wrote Sleuth, as well as screenplays for **Frenzy, Death on the Nile, ** and others, and is the brother of Peter Schaffer (“Amadeus”, “Equus”, etc.)) the Butler did it. In fact, the last line is something like “THis is the one an only time the Butler Actually Did Do It!”

The recent movie Gosford Park arguably has the butler doing it. In fact, two of the staff did it. Good flick.
And, of course, there’s the Gary Larson cartoon showing the Murder at the Butler’s Convention.

The origin of the idea of The Butler Did It, it seems to me, had to be in those British gentry mysteries, or in mysteries written about the upper class. The Butler was so much a part of the background that he wasn’t considered as a person at all, and was easily overlooked. It could only have originated if the audience thought that everyone in the milieu thought this way.

Yes, the Butler did do it.

And he would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those pesky kids! :wink:

I just had to add that William Marsh Rice (benefactor of Rice University) was murdered in 1900 by his valet, one Charlie Jones, at the instigation of Rice’s New York lawyer, Albert Patrick.

In other words, the butler did it. :smiley:


Doug Killgore’s stage play and film The Trust were based on these events.


Wow! I just found the lost thread which discussed this on Boardreader.

I posted what appeared to me to be the correct answer: Mary Roberts Reinhart.

But, it turns out that the websites which swear that her novels from the 1910-1920 period first used it are pure crap. She first used it in 1938 according to Fred Shapiro, the master of database searchers/linguists. So, if you ever read that old thread where I supposedly found the earliest cite--------I didn’t.

I would really have been surprised if it turned out to be someone as famous as Mary Roberts Rinehart, given that most mystery experts can’t pin a name to the cliché. Doubly surprising since she is already credited with creating the Had-I-But-Known School.* If she started The Butler Did It as well, it would be in every mystery reference book. It’s just far more likely that it was inspired by anonymous hacks.

*“Mrs. Rinehart’s stories involve ordinary people entangled in a terrifying situation that could happen to anyone. The heroines, however, generally have bad judgment and dubious intelligence. Warned never - never - to enter the attic, for instance, they are certain to be found there within a few pages, to be rescued at the last instant by their lovers. … The statement [or a variation of it] ‘Had I but known then what I know now, this could have been avoided,’ which often creeps into her books, has given a name to a school of writing that has produced innumerable followers.” Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection.

(Ogden Nash wrote a very funny poem taking off on this.)

So it looks like Rinehart’s real crime is that she should be blamed as the person responsible for the teen horror movies of the last two decades. But not as the originator of homicidal butlers.

This is a correction to my post above in January. Mary Roberts Rinehart did not use that phrase in 1938. There is a caption to a cartoon in Punch from 1938 and was found by Nigel Rees.

This is a correction to my post above in January. Mary Roberts Rinehart did not use that phrase in 1938. There is a caption to a cartoon in Punch from 1938 and was found by Nigel Rees.