The Butler Did It

By ZJ Czupor

Tonight, we’ll examine the origins of the phrase, “the butler did it.”

But first, let’s consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859 – 1930) “The Musgrave Ritual” an 1893 detective story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Though the butler was not the central villain, the butler in this tale is found dead beside the Musgrave family treasure.

In 1921, the British novelist Herbert George Jenkins (1876—1923) in his novel The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner, mentions a criminal butler.

Agatha Christie’s (1890 – 1976) The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926) lets suspicion fall on a man named Parker who was Ackroyd’s butler. Parker, of course, had a criminal past.

But the phrase is most commonly attributed to Pittsburgh native Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958)—known as the “American Agatha Christie.” Interestingly, she preceded Christie by fourteen years and was one of the most successful American mystery writers of the early 20th century.

Mary was a popular writer who authored more than 50 novels, many of which were best sellers. And she was a playwright. At one point, three of her plays ran simultaneously on Broadway. She wrote everything in longhand.

And what was the impetus for her writing – it was the stock market crash of 1901, in which she and her husband lost all their savings and wound up $12,000 in debt. Or about $347,000 in today’s dollars. She had been a nurse, a doctor’s wife and mother to three sons. She took up writing to earn income. Her first novel, The Circular Stairs, was published in 1908 and it sold 1.25 million copies. She was 31 at the time.

It was in 1930 that her novel The Door was published in which (spoiler alert) the butler did it. However, the words “the butler did it” do not appear in the book. When her novel was adapted into a musical called, The Butler Did It, Singing,” is when the phrase was attributed to Mary.

After a while the trope became so popular it was considered a cliché and often satirized. For example, in 1933, Damon Runyon (1880 – 1946) published the satirical story, “What, No Butler?”

Mary was also the first writer to use the device where the story’s narrator is the “once naïve but now older and wiser woman.”

In 1920, she created a super-criminal character called The Bat—in a play that was a smash on Broadway. It combined elements of mystery and comedy and featured a masked criminal whose calling card was a black paper bat that he tacked to doors. Life Magazine claimed that more than ten million people saw the play and it grossed more than $9 million. The novel of the same name is cited by Bob Kane (1915 – 1998) as one of his inspirations for the famous DC Comics superhero we know as Batman.

Her novel The Bat was released in 1933 by RCA Victor as one of the earliest talking book recordings.

Mary’s style had a lot in common with the hardboiled school of detective fiction and is part of the American school of scientific detection. Her most memorable tales combined murder, love, ingenuity, and humor in a distinct style. The New York Times said, “She helped the mystery story grow up.”

After Mary published her last novel, A Light in the Window (1954), she was crowned with a Mystery Writers of America Special Award. She died at 82 in New York City. She and her husband are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At the time of her death—1958—her novels had sold over 10 million copies.

And that’s your Mystery Minute.