Here’s a riddle that you might find in a detective story: which character is ubiquitous yet invisible? Vital yet overlooked? At the country house party, he’s never out of sight, yet nobody ever really sees him.
The answer, of course, is the butler. Always in the background, anticipating the guests’ every need before they can voice it, commanding a platoon of servants below stairs to do the master’s bidding. He’s the true mastermind behind the highly choreographed social events that are regularly depicted in crime fiction from the 1920s and 30s.
But his status is not secure. When a crime is committed and a scapegoat outside the privileged family circle is needed, what could be more convenient than to point the finger at the butler? All of the class boundaries and snobberies of British society are there in the detective fiction from this time too, for better and worse. And pushing the blame onto the servants quickly became a cliche of the genre, avoided and toyed with by generations of writers.
Regardless, I feel I have to investigate further. Did the butler really do it?
Welcome to Shedunnit. I’m Caroline Crampton.
And this episode marks the start of what I’m calling the Shedunnit pledge drive! As some listeners may know, alongside the show I run the Shedunnit Book Club, a membership scheme where all the subscriptions go towards supporting the show — it works a lot like Patreon, if you’ve ever used that to make regular contributions to an artist or work that you like. Members get access to a special bonus feed with extra content, the super secret club forum, and of course the monthly book club where we read a different classic detective novel together every month. Making every episode of this show takes many, many hours of research, writing, recording, editing and mixing, and I have hosting costs and so on to pay too, so every single member’s contribution helps to make it better and easier to make. Put simply: without them, I would not still be doing this.
Shedunnit has come along way since it launched at the end of October 2018 — two years and fifty episodes ago. Thanks to all the wonderful members who have signed up so far, the podcast is now almost at a tipping point where I can afford to make it a core part of my actual job, rather than something I do in my non existent spare time and in the middle of the night. I have so many ideas for new things I want to do: I want to be able to bring out episodes more often, I want to make mini audiobooks for you, and I want to expand into covering TV and film adaptations of detective fiction as well as the books.
And that’s where the pledge drive comes in. If I can add 100 new members to the Shedunnit Book Club by the end of 2020, I’ll be able to forge ahead with these plans to grow and deepen what the podcast offers. So, if you’d like to be part of that and feel able to offer some support, please visit shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive to find out about all the ways you can help take the show to the next level. There are new rewards on offer, new tiers at which you can join the club, a special offer for giving the gift of a membership to a friend, and much more. There’s also new merchandise coming very soon, as well as some exciting bonus content on this feed to give you a taste of what would be on offer if we hit the target by the end of December.
So, head over to shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive to make your contribution — I’m so grateful for your help and excited to see what we can do next.
Now, let’s get into today’s episode.
Oh wait, before I do — this is a rare occasion when I’m going to give a proper spoiler warning from the very start. I usually do my best to avoid revealing the solutions of the books I talk about, but this is a subject where it’s just not possible to talk about it and also keep all the endings a secret. After all, when covering whether the butler did it… I really have to be able to say whether he did or not. There is a full list of all the books mentioned in the description of this episode, so please do check it and come back later if there are any titles there for which you don’t want to hear any major plot details. Consider yourself warned!
Like a lot of cliches, the origins of “the butler did it” trope in mystery writing are tangled and subjective. To understand where it came from, we need to go back a little before the true “golden age of detective fiction” between the two world wars and look at the work of Mary Roberts Rineheart, an incredibly prolific American writer who began publishing mystery stories with The Circular Staircase in 1907. By the time Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley and the rest were forming the Detection Club in London, Rineheart was a household name, with her books selling thousands of copies and many of her stories adapted into silent films.
Her 1930 novel The Door is often considered to be one of the worst she ever wrote, but I’m afraid it is there that our butler-hunt takes us. A few external factors contributed in the creation of this overly long, plodding tale: Rineheart was just recovering from a bout of illness when her two sons launched a new publishing house, Farrar and Rineheart, and were relying on their mother to provide them with an early commercial success, which was all the more important for their business because of the economic downturn brought about by the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Mary Roberts Rineheart therefore bashed out The Door very quickly while still convalescing in hospital, and it doesn’t have any of her usual careful plotting or interesting characters. If you’re interested in trying out her work, it isn’t where I would recommend that you start.
However, it is worthy of our attention today, because The Door is one of the rare straightforward examples of a plot in which the butler does really turn out to be the murderer — in this book, the butler literally did do it. It doesn’t include the precise phrase “the butler did it”, which is sometimes also attributed to Rineheart, but there is no doubt that she did write a novel in which the butler… well you get the picture. The fact that it is a slapdash, mostly uninteresting novel also played a substantial role in cementing the idea that this was a lazy solution and one that mystery writers aspiring to originality should avoid.
That all seems fairly straight forward, doesn’t it? Except it just isn’t accurate to say that Mary Roberts Rineheart is entirely to blame for the idea of “the butler did it”. I draw your attention to number 11 of the American mystery writer SS Van Dine’s 20 Rules for Writing Detective Stories, published in 1928:
“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.”
Admittedly, he says “servant” not “butler”, but the idea is very similar. Van Dine, which was the pseudonym of art critic Willard Huntington Wright by the way, was essentially saying that picking a butler or any other kind of servant as the murderer was breaking the rules by which any “respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries” should abide. And he said that a full two years before Mary Roberts Rineheart published The Door.
Butlers, then, were already considered far too obvious to be the culprits in clever, original whodunnits. And we don’t have to look too far to find the stories that might have inspired Van Dine to include this prohibition in his list. Indeed, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself had dabbled in this trope back in 1893 with the Sherlock Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”, which features a dastardly butler by the name of Richard Brunton who hatches a plot to steal a valuable family treasure. There were more recent examples when Van Dine was writing too, such as the 1921 short story “The Strange Case of Mr Challoner”, a locked room mystery in which Jenkins’s detective Malcolm Sage eventually works out how an apparently respectable butler had worked the trick in order to kill his master.
Jenkins has another butlerish connection that we should not ignore. As well as being a writer, he was also a publisher and entrepreneur, and in 1912 founded his own publishing company called Herbert Jenkins Limited. In 1918, he began publishing the works of P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of arguably the most famous butler of them all, Jeeves. Although Jenkins himself died in 1923, his company carried on working with Wodehouse for decades, and even published the 1958 novel Something Fishy, which was brought out in the United States under the alternative title of The Butler Did It.
Mary Roberts Rineheart can’t be held entirely responsible for originating “the butler did it” , then, although there can be no doubt that large readership and the poor quality of the novel in question helped to cement the idea of this trope as an easy get out for a lazy plotter of mystery stories. To better understand how it became such a staple cliche of detective fiction, it’s worth thinking about pop culture’s long running and ongoing obsession with depicting the wealthy and privileged, because that explains some of the power dynamics we find between masters and servants in crime fiction.
Historically, so much of literature has been about the middle and upper classes, both because those were the social backgrounds of the people who could afford to be writers and because those lives were just deemed more worthy of depiction. And although that has changed substantially in the past century and more, I still don’t think we’re free of this cultural obsession with the lives of the very wealthy. Look at Downton Abbey, or The Crown, or the constant flow of period dramas on our screens. This fascination is not one that we can talk about in the past tense. And with these portrayals of wealthy people come depictions of their servants. It’s ying and yang, upstairs and downstairs, gentleman and valet. You can’t have one without the other, it would seem.
Murder mysteries, especially those published by British writers in the first half of the twentieth century, are obsessed with order. It’s one of the reasons why we like them so much, and why it has been argued that they are a fundamentally conservative form — the detective brings order to chaos and restores the status quo by solving the crime. The prevailing social order and class distinctions bleed into these books, because that is the system in which they were written and read. While some writers did poke fun at these conventions, as I’ll explain later, the servants in golden age detective novels are as subservient and powerless as their real life counterparts.
The British census of 1891 records that 1.3 million women and girls were working as domestic servants, and in 1900 domestic labour was the country’s biggest single employment. There were fine distinctions below stairs just as there were above them. The butler, of course, is the omniscient leader of the servants’ hall, and then there is a hierarchy beneath him right down to the lowliest scullery maid. Everyone knew their place, and that’s the kind of structure in which classic detective fiction thrives.
The First World War upended much of this. Hundreds of thousands of domestic servants left their positions to serve in the forces or to work in factories, and when the war was over they didn’t want to go back to a life of poorly paid drudgery and powerlessness in private service. The “servant problem”, which was the shorthand name for the difficulty getting and keeping servants in a society where people had more options for work, is a constant background anxiety in golden age detective fiction, and I think it’s part of why we see employers so suspicious of their servants in some stories. They could no longer count on the absolute loyalty engendered by a total lack of life chances enjoyed by generations past. There’s plenty of academic research today that shows that one sign that a society is becoming more equal is the decline in the number of domestic workers, as more employment options and social welfare programmes offer people from poorer backgrounds alternative ways of life. Post 1918, there was a reasonable chance that your butler would be better read than you and have a better war record. No wonder it was so easily assumed that they would take revenge upon their masters.
The prominent role played by servants in golden age detective fiction can be explained in part just by the period in which these books were written. But it also has a lot to do with the mechanics of the whodunnit itself. Colin Watson ably makes this point in his 1971 work of criticism Snobbery with Violence — detective writers need the servants, because they function as boundaries and checks on the plot. Just as country houses or remote islands make for great whodunit settings because they physically isolate the circle of suspects, so do competent servants aid the mystery writer because they are the eyes and ears of a household. Maids, footmen, cooks, charwomen and butlers can all be called upon to reliably bear witness to when a body was discovered, or whether a room has been accessed, or if a suspect’s habits have changed suspiciously. The domestic tasks they perform that are so far beneath a novel’s well to do protagonists, like clearing out a grate or cooking a meal, can suddenly be elevated to matters of great significance by a murder plot, and only the servants can speak on them with expertise.
There are countless stories that use servants as observers or obstacles, but I just want to highlight two that I think are very typical of the period and the technique. Firstly, Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman from the early 1940s sees the footman of the title provide the “impossibility” that detective Roderick Alleyn must overcome to solve this crime at a remote country house. The footman confesses to doing a surreptitious and rebellious dance to a song on the wireless in the hall outside the room where the murder takes place, thereby implacably cutting off route to the murder victim. It’s the servant-as-obstacle idea taken to ridiculously brilliant extreme — he’s literally standing outside the room doing the “Hands, Knees and Boomps-a-Daisy” dance while someone is being killed.
The second book I want to draw your attention to is The Mysterious Affair At Styles, Agatha Christie’s debut novel from 1920. It’s also a country house mystery, and sees Hercule Poirot the recently arrived Belgian refugee solve a gruesome poisoning. One of the crucial breaks in the case comes from the parlourmaid Dorcas, who Christie describes as being “the very model and picture of a good old-fashioned servant” and who by fixing the exact time of a quarrel provides Poirot with key intelligence about what has really been going on in the house, never mind what stories its inhabitants spin. She is a crucial ally to the detective, who can search the house without arousing suspicion and observe the family without making them feel like they are under constant surveillance. But even though Poirot is very respectful when he speaks to her, even he does not acknowledge how much his successful resolution of the case owes to her efforts. She is just a servant, after all, and his attitude is inflected with a kind of patronising paternalism.
After the break: Search me. I insist.
A domestic servant in 1920 occupied a peculiar position. They were simultaneously trusted with immense responsibility and sensitive information, such as a butler having control of a household budget and a priceless collection of wine or silver or a lady’s maid helping to undress her mistress every day and knowing all of her most intimate fears and secrets. But at the same time, they were completely powerless. If a servant was dismissed in questionable circumstances without a reference, their career was over, and there would be very little inquiry into whether they actually deserved this fate or not.
In all manner of short stories and novels we see servants who have been accused of theft or murder demand that they and their possession be searched immediately, so that their innocence can be proven straight away and there will be no lingering doubt about their reputation. Another interesting dynamic to pay attention to is how authority figures treat butlers and other servants. Hercule Poirot tends to be sympathetic and polite to servants who are afraid that they will be unfairly dismissed once a murder has been committed in the household, but many of the police characters across golden age detective fiction are much more likely to jump to the conclusion that the butler, or housemaid, or chauffeur must have done it.
To give some credence to that point of view, there are examples of real life cases where the butler or another servant was the culprit. It was his valet who murdered Lord William Russell in 1840, and there are a number examples of female thieves in disguise getting jobs as lady’s maids and housekeepers in order to rob their employers. Of course, we rarely get to hear the servants’ side of the story today, but it is possible to see why the police in crime fiction are always so keen to jump to this conclusion.
In the work of Dorothy L. Sayers, for example, one of the ways that the reader can tell which police detectives are good at their jobs and which aren’t is by looking at how they treat servants — in 1923’s Whose Body?, Inspector Sugg is very unpleasant to a maid called Gladys, whereas the far nicer and more talented Inspector Parker does his very best to patient and kind to domestic workers.
I think part of the reason why “the butler did it” became a cliche so quickly is because it’s just such an obvious example of punching down unnecessarily. In a world where a butler might get summarily dismissed over a minor and arbitrary disagreement, it’s just too plausible that they might also become the scapegoat for a murder to be a fun part of fiction.
The near-total agreement that having the butler actually commit the murder is way too obvious and easy provided mystery writers with the opportunity to subvert and twist this trope in interesting ways. Since readers would assume that the butler didn’t do it because that would just be too gauche, those expectations could be toyed with to complicate and improve the plot. Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy from 1934 contains an excellent example of this, because the murderer is a posh actor who almost gets away with his crimes because he successfully impersonates a butler. Christie plays with the idea of the butler as a double bluff or red herring in her 1930 play Black Coffee and the 1926 novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, too. In the latter, the butler John Parker is a dodgy character with blackmail in his past — is that enough upon which to suspect him of murder, too? That’s the possibility that she dangles in front of the reader.
Georgette Heyer’s second detective novel, Why Shoot a Butler? from 1933 is also a playful take upon this trope, because the butler is not a suspect but one of the victims. The question of the title also alludes to the so-called servant problem, because the butler in this story is a loyal family retainer of many years’ standing, and surely only the most hard hearted murderer would deprive an estate of such a resource?
Although he isn’t officially a butler, I think Peter Wimsey’s manservant Bunter is an excellent example of a writer taking the stereotypes about servants and turning them upside down. Sayers writes Bunter often with seemingly more love and attention than she gives to her hero. There is nothing he cannot do and no situation he cannot rise to, from photography to cookery to espionage to hand to hand combat. Probably one of my favourite scenes in fiction full stop is the section of her 1937 novel Busman’s Honeymoon in which Bunter overcomes the domestic difficulties moving his gentleman into a rural farmhouse with no heating or hot water with total aplomb. Unlike in the time of Sherlock Holmes, it’s no longer the detective himself who has that seemingly divine omniscience and ability, it’s his servant. Critics have sometimes alleged that Sayers was “in love” with Lord Peter Wimsey, but I think it’s much more plausible that she harboured a passion for Bunter — and I wouldn’t blame her. Sayers was famously plagued by domestic disasters, sometimes claiming household disruption as the excuse for delivering a manuscript late. Why wouldn’t she create the ideal factotum in her fiction, who could make all of those problems go away?
As British society was altered by the two world wars, so did the detective fiction change too. Through the 1940s and 1950s, it became far more common for aristocratic characters to complain about a lack of funds to pay servants, rather than to inhabit a fully-staffed country house. And some less well off characters, like Miss Marple, make do by training up young and inexperienced maids and then sending them out to find better paid positions with the benefit of her wisdom. Through servant characters, we also sometimes see major world events intrude upon the sheltered world of the murder mystery. I always think of Mitzi, the Jewish refugee housekeeper in Agatha Christie’s 1950 novel A Murder is Announced, who is entirely reasonably terrified that the police who have come to investigate the murder are also going to take her away because of who she is.
Crying “the butler did it” is a fun, light hearted way of poking fun at one of the more hoary tropes of classic detective fiction. But if you dig a little under the surface, you find all the class prejudice, snobbery and social history lurking within that one simple statement.
Once I started thinking about the lack of agency and freedom that many domestic servants endured in the early twentieth century for the sake of a regular wage, I began to wonder why we don’t see more plots in which the butlers take maters into their own hands.
And after all, who would suspect them if they did?
This episode of Shedunnit was written and narrated by me, Caroline Crampton, and edited by Euan MacAleece. You can find show notes at shedunnitshow.com/thebutlerdidit, where there will links to the sources for this episode and further reading suggestions on the topics covered today. I provide transcripts for every episode of the podcast too: find them at shedunnitshow.com/transcripts.
This is the podcast’s 50th episode, and I’d like to be able to make another 50, and then some. The best way to make that happen is to become a member of the Shedunnit Book Club, or to buy a membership as a gift for a friend. As I said at the start, between now and the end of the year I’m running a pledge drive to try and add 100 new members, which will enable me to make more episodes for you and to bring them out more regularly. Be part of that now at shedunnitshow.com/pledgedrive.
I’ll be back on 11 November with another episode.