The Butler Did It

Ever wonder where the phrase – “the butler did it” – originated?

After Mary Roberts Rinehart used the butler as the villain in her 1930 mystery, The Door, critics ridiculed the idea that a servant could be the culprit in a murder – just too easy a solution. Since then, the phrase “the butler did it,” has been the cliché comedic solution to fictional murders. Rinehart never actually used the phrase and mystery writers now use the butler only as an obvious red herring.

In Walter and Peter Marks’s 1980s play, The Butler Did It, now popularly staged in local productions, every character is either named Butler or has been a butler. A community theater production nearby inspired me to look for some of Rinehart’s classics.

I’m now reading The Circular Staircase (for under two dollars on my Kindle). Using the “if I had only known” device, Rinehart withholds important information until revealing all in the end to solve the crime, but along the way, her careful plotting, Victorian prose, and clever heroine are keeping me entertained.

“I justified myself by reflecting that if the Armstrongs chose to leave pictures in unsafe positions, and to rent a house with a family ghost, the destruction of property was their responsibility, not mine…”

A crash in the night, half a cuff-link, a golf club, a gun in the tulip bed – I can’t wait to find out whodunit – this time the characters do not include a butler.