"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.

  • 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 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 at 14:01
  • 3
    Van Dine's rule #11 says, "A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit ... It is a too easy solution." This suggests that criminal servants generally (not just butlers) were a cliche by 1928. – Gareth Rees Mar 9 at 14:43
  • @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 at 10:35
  • The Door employs some fun but absurd contrivances in order to maintain suspense about the murderer's identity up to the next-to-last sentence. Perhaps the mounting implausibility of the contrivances amused contemporary readers? We'd need some evidence though. – Gareth Rees Mar 10 at 12:52

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