Stupid Question ™
Nov. 29, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the origin of the cliché mystery line, “The butler did it”?
A: This phrase, which describes the supposed predictability of mystery novels, is a mystery within a mystery.
Apparently, no published etymologist has ever tried to track it down. The source is completely unknown, and nobody’s even collected examples.
This in turn prevents us from figuring out what the phrase really means—because, in fact, butlers have rarely been the criminals in murder-mystery history. More often, they’re among the victims.
They may have been the criminals often enough in early mysteries to inspire the joke. They were also commonly named as suspects, and the joke may originally have referred to that.
The classic English mysteries had aristocratic settings and were intensely classist, often treating servants as less than human and freely using them as creepy suspects, murder victims and villains while the upper-class folks stood around looking horrified. (The butler himself, as head servant, was semi-upper-class; it was much more common for a maid or secretary to be the killer.)
The butler was codified as a stock mystery character by the seminal mystery “The Moonstone” (1868), narrated in part by the (non-villainous) butler.
Criminal butlers appear in the 1893 Sherlock Holmes tales “The ‘Gloria Scott’” and “The Musgrave Ritual.” And butlers were prime suspects in such classics as Agatha Christie’s “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” (1926) and Ngaio Marsh’s “A Man Lay Dead” (1934).
The mystery quickly became conventionalized, and in 1928 writer S.S. Van Dine published his famous 20 rules for writing mysteries—which included a ban on using servants as criminals. The first specific reference to the butler as a cliché criminal was Damon Runyan’s 1934 mystery parody “What, No Butler?”
But none of these stories used the actual phrase, “The butler did it.” The earliest references I could find, interestingly, date to around 1956-1958. They include the titles to a Curtis Counce Group jazz song (circa 1957); one of P.G. Wodehouse’s clever-butler comedy novels (1957); and Walter and Peter Marks’ mystery-farce play (1956). All are pretty clearly self-conscious uses of a preexisting phrase.
Like any good mystery, there are red herrings. A correspondent of the BBC radio show “Quote...Unquote” claimed to have dated the phrase to 1938, but gave no citation.
I also found a couple claims that once-famous mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart coined the phrase in one of her books. Credible enough, since she actually employed weird butlers (one who suspected her of drugging him, and another who beat up a cop). But the phrase does not appear in two Rinehart biographies, her autobiography, and 20 of her novels—not even in “The Door” (1930), in which the butler did do it.
It seems likely that the phrase was coined by a critic or comedian, not a mystery novelist. I suggest that it won’t date earlier than 1930, because it literally answers the classic mystery question, “Whodunit?” And that clever term was coined by a book critic in 1930.