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"The butler did it" is a common trope indicating a hackneyed solution to a mystery. I have read several classic mysteries from the 1920s and earlier (Poe, Conan Doyle, Christie, Sayers, etc.) but do not recall a single instance of the butler's actually being the criminal mastermind, let alone enough such stories to justify the phrase's use as a cliché. The one example I can think of, Agatha Christie's 1925 short story "The Listerdale Mystery," plays with the trope rather than using it straightforwardly.

TV Tropes claims that the idea of the butler as perp was already clichéd by 1928. But the page gives no little evidence for this. The page discusses two origins for the phrase, both dubious:

  • It is often attributed to Mary Roberts Rinehardt's The Door (1930). But the page also says that the phrase does not actually occur in the book.
  • It is part of rule #20 in S. S. Van Dine's 1928 essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories." But criminal butlers are not mentioned in that rule, nor anywhere else in the essay as far as I can see.

In any case, TV Tropes treats the idea of "the butler did it" as cliché rather than discussing what led to its being seen as a cliché in the first place. Google Ngrams shows that the phrase was practically unknown before the 1920s and then jumped in usage:

Google Ngram showing great increase in usage of phrase "the butler did it" after 1920. The phrase is unknown before then.

But what led to this increase in the phrase's use? What mystery books or stories from the early days of the genre had the butler as the perpetrator of the crime, leading to this plot device becoming a cliché?

Note: this is not off-topic as asking for a list, because I'm not asking for recommendations. This is more along the lines of the many "What is the earliest example of X?" questions asked on this site before. The only difference is that I'm asking for a series of early examples rather than just one, because the sheer number of examples evidently led to this becoming an undesirable way to structure a mystery plot.

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    There are things that have become clichés with just a single example, if they're egregious enough — consider "jumped the shark". So maybe Mary Reinhardt's The Door really was the originating example. Looking in Google books, the phrase doesn't appear very often before 1930.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 9, 2021 at 13:51
  • So was the solution to the mystery in Rinehart's The Door sufficiently egregious to have given rise to the phrase? She certainly seems to have been popular enough that her book could have been the source. One might have to read the book to find out, though.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 9, 2021 at 14:01
  • @PeterShor my reading of the TV Tropes page was that Rinehardt is cited as the originator of "the butler did it" in the same way that Holmes is often credited with saying "Elementary, my dear Watson" even though that phrase isn't actually in Conan Doyle. I'ven't read Rinehardt's novel, however, so you may be right that the phrase is traceable back to a single, egregious use of the device.
    – verbose
    Mar 10, 2021 at 10:35
  • It may be that ‘butler’ is, in the vernacular, a stand-in for any trusted servant. For example, Jeeves is routinely referred to as a butler, but was actually a valet. So, for the hoi polloi, who barely have time to cook dinner, ‘butler’ encompasses also ‘valet’, ‘private secretary’, etc. Mar 14, 2021 at 22:33

1 Answer 1

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TL;DR: The criminal butler was not a cliché of detective stories, but of silent films!

Below I’ve listed ten silent films with criminal butlers, and another six where an apparently guilty butler is a significant suspect. I found these by searching the AFI catalog and IMDb for mysteries with “butler” in the synopsis.

Silent films with criminal butlers

Year Title AFI synopsis excerpt
1915 The Silent Command After finding a button belonging to the doctor’s butler, the lawyer places the servant under hypnosis and learns thereby that the doctor sent him to murder the old man.
1915 The Green Cloak Duncan, who had married and then deserted Ruth, double-crossed the gang, and the butler and maid were sent to kill him.
1917 The Mystic Hour Clavering’s butler sees the painting of his dead master, and is so horror stricken that he confesses to murdering Clavering for his money.
1918 Just for Tonight Lady Roxenham agrees to participate in the deception, but later Ted spies her breaking into the major’s safe. After he alerts the household, she and the butler are revealed as notorious thieves.
1918 The Voice of Destiny Following John’s arrest, the detectives guarding Marie’s house recognize Briggs, the butler, as a wanted criminal, and when he attempts to escape, they shoot him. Marie, in playing with her uncle’s Dictaphone, discovers that his murderer’s voice was captured on the recording. Played at the dying butler’s bedside, the recording leads to Briggs’s confession and John’s release from prison.
1919 The Trembling Hour Ralph is accused of the crime, but George arrives and forces a confession from Mrs. Byrnie’s butler.
1920 A Manhattan Knight By this time, the family butler, who is a member of an underworld gang, has tipped off his friends, who then steal the Fenton jewels.
1920 The Bromley Case Finally, all three are cleared when Tex discovers that the butler did it while attempting to abscond with the contents of the safe.
1924 The Great Diamond Mystery In the climax, the butler is shot and makes a dying confession to Graves’s murder.
1925 The Verdict Ronsard’s butler comes forward and informs the jury that he killed Ronsard in self-defense when Ronsard attacked him.

Silent films with butlers as significant suspects

Year Title AFI synopsis excerpt
1915 The Alster Case Linda is arguing with Keith, the butler, who is attempting to blackmail her.
1917 The Bride’s Silence Nathan’s sister Sylvia hides the knife, and when the butler Bobbins—whose hatred of Nathan was well-known—is arrested, Sylvia remains silent.
1920 Luring Shadows J. H. Wareing, the treasurer of a New York bank, is found murdered in his library one morning; missing are securities and a necklace he had shown to the butler, Jason, the night before. Also present that night was the family physician, Dr. Barton. Suspicion points to the butler.
1920 Circumstantial Evidence Determining to solve Nelson’s murder, Tex searches for the butler but discovers him to be innocent.
1921 Nobody When financier John Rossmore is found murdered in his library, suspicion points to Hedges, his butler, who was instrumental in obtaining his divorce.
1922 Finger Prints Although the criminologist places the blame on Wareing’s butler, a reformed burglar, the killer is finally revealed to be Barton himself.

Detective stories with criminal butlers

I could find no evidence for criminal butlers being a cliché in detective stories until after silent films had already run the trope into the ground. The question was considered by Mike Grost, who noted that

The solution of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door (1930) is notable for being one of only a few real-life examples known to me of an allegedly popular mystery cliché.

Mike Grost. ‘A famous mystery cliché’. mikegrost.com.

Grost was able to discover only two examples prior to Rinehart, both short stories by writers who are now obscure:

Year Author Title In the collection
1914 Hugh C. Weir The Man with Nine Lives Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective
1921 Herbert Jenkins The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner Malcolm Sage, Detective

Evidence that criminal butlers were a cliché by the mid-1920s

From a review in Life magazine of Owen Davis’ play The Donovan Affair (1926), later made into a film directed by Frank Capra (1929), which features a murderous butler:

The other straight mystery play so far is “The Donovan Affair,” and if it did not have to stand comparison with “The Ghost Train,” it might seem more exciting. But we are getting to the point now where, after fifteen or twenty guests have been grilled and suspected of murder in turn, we not only don’t know who did it, but don’t care. We have a system now whereby we automatically suspect the butler right at the start and then pay no more attention.

Robert Benchley (23 September 1926). ‘Cuteness and Crime’. In Life, volume 88, issue 2290, p. 21.

Criminal servants in general were deprecated by S. S. Van Dine in one of his famous rules:

  1. 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.

S. S. Van Dine (1928). ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories’. In The American Magazine, September 1928. Reprinted in Howard Haycroft, ed. (1946). The Art of the Mystery Story, p. 191. New York: Grosset & Dunlap.

By 1930, the phrase “the butler did it” was a well-known reference to the cliché, as in this joke about plot spoilers in Judge magazine.

“Oh, you have just started to read it? Isn’t it a swell book? It fooled is right up to the last chapter. Of course the butler did it. Mabel thought the old nurse did it. No, they kill her, too. Still I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a good book tho’. So full of surprises.”

Anon (10 May 1930). ‘The End of a Beautiful Friendship’. In Judge, volume 98, number 2532, p. 15.

Or as in this cartoon by Norman Mansbridge in Punch magazine for 14 September 1938.

Two uniformed British policemen are standing in the street outside the Epic Cinema. In the doorway at the top of some steps a mustachoied doorman in a military-style unform with shoulder-boards, braid, and cap, is talking to a woman whose face we can see through the box-office window, above which a sign indicates that the one-and-sixpence seats are sold out but there are still seats for two-and-sixpence and four-and-sixpence. The cinema is advertising “The Mansion Murder” on a poster showing a corpse with a dagger in its back, a detective with a magnifying glass, inverness cape, deerstalker, and calabash pipe, and a police constable examining the body. Two billboards show scenes with a masked, hooded figure brandishing a revolver in one and a bloody dagger in the other. On the street, the younger policeman jerks his thumb at the poster and says to his older colleague, “I guessed the butler did it”.

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  • More butler movies en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Barton_Mystery_(1920_film) and imdb.com/title/tt2136868 Very impressive take, although I respectfully disagree (if that’s OK). E.g., IMO, S. S. Van Dine doesn’t complain about criminal servants as a cliché, he generalizes experiences of good writers: “Hmm, in all our books the perpetrators are never servants – must be a rule here!” To quote: “based partly on the practice of all the great writers…” Tropes used too often were listed separately under Rule 20? (At least this other reading of the rule is possible)
    – b4rtr
    Mar 3 at 14:01

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