Reader Chris wrote in wondering how “the butler did it” became a mystery fiction cliche and who the first guilty butler was.
Two of the earliest examples of felonious butlers I can find are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual” from 1893 and Herbert Jenkins’ “The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner” from 1921. Conan Doyle’s butler isn’t the primary villain of the story, but does attempt to rob his employers and winds up dead for it. Jenkins made his butler the main bad guy and the murderer in the story. As far as I can tell, he was the first to do so, but it was another author, Mary Roberts Rinehart, who made it a detective story trope.
Rinehart was a successful and prolific author and playwright, sometimes regarded as the “American Agatha Christie.” One of her plays, The Bat, focused on a group of people being murdered one by one by the titular costumed killer, a character that helped inspired Bob Kane’s Batman.
In Rinehart’s 1930 novel The Door, the butler is the murderer, and while the novel is sometimes cited as the first appearance of the phrase “the butler did it,” it doesn’t appear in that book or any of her other works. While The Door was a hit for Rinehart and her sons, who released it through a publishing house they’d just started up, her pinning the crime on the butler has gone down in history as a serious misstep. Just two years earlier, critic and detective novelist SS Van Dine laid down a set of rules for crime and mystery writers in an essay fittingly titled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” Among his advice was, “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.”
That The Door was a commercial success while flaunting a hallmark of what some considered lousy mystery writing made it an easy target for jokes. Stories and books like “What, No Butler?” and The Butler Did It soon turned murderous manservants into shorthand for a cheap ending.
Life Imitates Art
Years after Rinehart made the bad guy butler the butt of many jokes, she was almost killed by one of her own servants.
In the late 1940s, Rinehart hired a new butler for her summer home in Bar Harbor, Maine, declining to promote her longtime chef into the position, which he had wanted for many years. One day, while Rinehart was reading in her library, the chef walked in wearing a shirt with no jacket, a violation of Rinehart’s dress code for her staff. When she asked him where the rest of his uniform was, the chef screamed, “Here is my coat!” while pulling a handgun from his pocket.
He aimed at Rinehart from just a few feet away and pulled the trigger, but the gun jammed. Rinehart ran from the room and headed toward the servant’s wing, with the chef chasing after her and fumbling to fix his gun. Rinehart’s chauffeur tackled him to the ground while the housemaid disarmed him and tossed the gun outside.
While Rinehart called the police, the chef broke free from the chauffeur, grabbed two knives from the kitchen and started chasing Rinehart again. The gardener came in from the yard and helped the chauffeur wrestle the chef to the ground again, where they held him until the police arrived.
Unlike in her story, Rinehart’s real butler didn’t do much of anything. He ran from the house as soon as the commotion started and hitched a ride into town.