The Crime Readers' Association

John Bayliss – The Butler Did It

17th April 2015 by in Crime Readers' Updates

Despite the phrase ‘the butler did it’ being such a well worn cliché, there appear to be remarkably few cases of murderous butlers in the whole corpus of crime fiction—not even from the Golden Age, when the natural habitat of the murderer was almost exclusively upper middle-class households with servants. In fact, from the earliest days of the genre, there seems to have been a marked reluctance to pin the blame on the hired staff—almost as if accusing a servant was too simple a solution.

S.S. Van Dine, in his ‘Twenty Commandments for Writing Detective Stories’, written in 1928, certainly thought so: 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. However, considering that most crime writers have gleefully broken almost all of Mr Van Dine’s twenty commandments at some time or the other, this cannot be the only reason for the scarcity of homicidal domestic staff.

Butlers, in particular, are almost universally innocent. After extensive research (in other words, a couple of hours on the internet) I can find only four butlers with criminal tendencies, and only two of them actually ‘did it’.

The Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of The Musgrave Ritual” (1893) includes a butler who is certainly a thief but is not the actual villain (plus he ends up dead for his pains). There is a Herbert Jenkins’ short story from 1921 called “The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner” in which the butler did indeed do it. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), suspicion does initially fall on Ackroyd’s butler Parker (owing to his criminal past) but he is swiftly exonerated. Finally, Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote a novel called The Door (1930), in which the butler is revealed as the murderer, although—despite claims from some quarters that this novel was indeed the origin of the ‘butler did it’ line—the phrase does not appear anywhere within that novel’s pages.

From then on, however, the butler most definitely didn’t do it. In fact, as changes in society rendered servants—let alone butlers—and increasingly rare element in the average crime novel, there were fewer and fewer butlers with the opportunity to do anything at all, let alone commit a murder.

So where did the phrase ‘the butler did it’ come from? And why did we ever imagine it was such a cliché? My best theory is that is it because butlers were ever present, often silent (or at least laconic) and hid their feelings beneath an inscrutable façade. If you did want to hide a villain ‘in plain sight’ in the midst of an aristocratic house party, then the butler was the ideal—if rather obvious—candidate.

Although none of this has prevented the parody writers from exploiting this particular cliché to its utmost. Amateur theatre companies worldwide have the choice of producing (at least) three different comedy plays all called ‘The Butler Did It’, one of which ingeniously includes a whole family of people with the surname ‘Butler’ together with an actual butler who is not called ‘Butler’. Another includes a character called Peter Flimsy—I think you get the picture. And although my own detective, J.F. Springer, lives in a world where butlers are even more scarce than unicycling nuns, I’ve even made my own acknowledgement to the cliché by squeezing a butler (although I cheated by having an actor play a rôle) into the plot of a short story called ‘A Corpse At the Dining Table’.

So despite a complete lack of evidence, it seems that the butler will find himself on the list of suspects for some time to come.

 

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