So, The Butler Did It

I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s murder mystery The Door, which I talked about here and here, at five and twenty two chapters in, respectively. This was started off by my wondering about the phrase, “the butler did it”. I’ve finally finished the book, so this post will finish off my review of The Door, and also discuss the idea of the butler being the murderer. I’d warn you about spoilers, but, well, I think that you already know that the butler did it. I might spoil a few side-mysteries too, though, so caveat lector.

The book was in its entirety written in the style of the memoirs of someone who observed a very strange situation. I am used to murder mysteries and detective fiction being, roughly, synonyms, but The Door is very clearly a murder mystery while it is not at all detective fiction. There is a police detective—who does solve the case—but almost entirely outside of the narrative. Several members of the family play at a little detecting, but only occasionally. Only one of them does anything which does not simply anticipate a later discovery, and that was to effect a useful introduction, rather than any actual detection.

The story also maintains the style of foreshadowing hints until the end, abandoning it only as the police detective explains the solution, which is the last thing that happens in the book. I’ve concluded that I don’t like this style. It feels at best overwrought, and at worst like an attempt to spice up a dull narrative with chopped up bits of other parts of the same narrative. I don’t mean that all foreshadowing is bad, of course, but The Door seemed to use foreshadowing in place of a compelling plot.

There is also the very strange question of the narrator, Elizabeth Jane Bell, who narrates the story in a very personal way. Throughout the story alternately laments the tragedy, investigates it, and destroys evidence to try to protect the family. It’s that last part which is especially hard to reconcile with the narration; why on earth would she be narrating all of these scandalous details in a memoir when the character of herself within the memoirs would want all such scandal wiped out? Whether you take the inconsistency between herself in the story and herself as narrator to be a problem with the character or a problem with the narrator (I took it as the former), it is still an unsettling problem.

There is also the problem of the family which Elizabeth Jane was trying to protect. Her niece Judy was never really under any suspicion having, as I recall, an alibi from the beginning. She was the only really sympathetic member of the whole family other than Elizabeth Jane herself, and she mostly from a general pleasantness which seemed to be a combination of decent manners, comfortable circumstances, and little ambition. The rest were detestable. Towards the end I was hoping that the murder would be solved after the good-for-nothing Jim was executed, just so the wretch would be out of the story. The other characters were similarly unpleasant, which left me very unsympathetic to the family’s desire to avoid scandal, which was to a fair degree their only major motivation in anything that they did. But this brings up an interesting point in murder mysteries in general: it’s hard for likable characters to be suspects.

The mystery in a murder mystery obviously depends on there being more than one suspect. More properly, on there being more than one credible suspect. The problem is that a character can fail to be credible as a suspect by being too likable. It’s very difficult to write an enjoyable story about a good person who stoops to murder but then cheerfully covers it up. It’s that much harder to write several characters who are all credible in that way; to pull it off one must write good characters with depth, rather than the common approach of paper-thin automatons who are good merely because they’re not tempted by ordinary temptations. It’s much easier to make suspects credible by simply making there be nothing to which they won’t do for gain.

Another important distinction between suspects in a mystery is between those with an obvious motive and those without an obvious motive. Very often this does not line up well with the moral probity of the characters. In order to put an innocent person in peril (to heighten the tension) a morally upright person will get an obvious motive, while a moral degenerate will get none. This helps to spread the doubtfulness around, to be sure, but because both of these suspects have something obviously going for them as suspects, it is especially common to make the culprit someone who is not very morally offensive (apart from their murders) who has a hidden motive. Which brings us to the butler.

How much was the butler a character and therefore a potential suspect? It’s hard for me to say fairly because I already knew that he did it, of course, but doing my best to be fair, I would say somewhat, but not much. Joseph (the butler) gets progressively more tired, worn out, and on edge as the story progresses, which certainly was a clue (that he was running around doing things while everyone else was asleep). He had originally come from one of the victim’s household’s, which should have been a clue but actually wasn’t—his prior connection to the rich victim had no significance as far that was revealed in the story. Nothing was ever made of him having the opportunity for the murders, because they happened at times when everyone had opportunity, and the house was small enough that a butler’s ability to be unnoticed had no significance. In fact, all three murders happened outside of the house, so his position as butler was—if anything—a disadvantage. He had to sneak off to commit them, or commit them while he was off-duty. The one time his being a butler was an advantage was when he answered the door when one of the victims came to see Elizabeth Jane but he turned her away because Elizabeth Jane was sleeping. Any butler might have turned her away, and any murderer might have learned of her coming and consequently resolved to kill her before she could tell what she knew.

On balance, the disadvantages of Joseph’s being a butler far outweighing the advantages makes Joseph’s being a butler fairly irrelevant to his being a murderer. It’s really just his profession. Most murderers have a day-job and there’s no particular reason it shouldn’t be butling. In this case his being the butler of the narrator was something of a camouflage; it meant that she didn’t notice him. Also his many years of loyal service made her affectionate of him, and this combined with the murders happening nowhere he was supposed to be and her always thinking of him as having no existence past being her butler disguised him as a suspect. But it didn’t disguise him totally. One of the themes of the book is how little one really knows of the people one thinks one knows, and the fact that Joseph had a wife somewhere but Elizabeth Jane had no idea where does actually highlight this blindness in a way that makes it fair game for the reader to not be so blind. In fact, I would argue that line by Jane Elizabeth is a well crafted notice to the reader that Joseph is a potential suspect.

Further, if the test of victory in the contest between the reader and the writer of a murder mystery is that the writer wins if the reader doesn’t guess who the murderer is but blames himself rather than the writer for it, then I believe that The Door has the potential for victory. Reading it through while knowing what to look for, I think that Rinehart did play fair with the reader. Certainly it seems possible she knew who the murderer was from the first, and did not merely cast about for someone she hadn’t already ruled out when she came to the ending. So I don’t think that there’s any cogent criticism to be made of her choice of murderer. (Except, perhaps, that it’s a little odd for someone who engages in fraud, forgery, and conspiracy—which eventually leads to multiple murders to cover those up—to have no criminal history, but instead a long and unmarred career in positions of significant trust.)

So when we come to the question of whether it is legitimate that, as Wikipedia puts it (as of the time of this writing), “Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it” from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase.” Not only does the novel not use that exact phrase, it doesn’t use any even somewhat similar phrase. I’m going to quote the reveal in the novel, but I need to mention a little context first. Joseph had been mysteriously shot in the collar bone about a week before, but he was not killed and recovered enough to come back to his duties, though with his arm in a sling. Elizabeth Jane had, therefore, given him leave to go on holiday to recover. We have not learned up to this point who Joseph’s wife is, but we can mostly guess it was a woman who figured into the plot somewhere else, who we knew to be dying of inoperable cancer. We’re picking up with the tail-end of the explanation given privately to Elizabeth Jane by the police detective. During the explanation he had been calling the murderer “James C. Norton”, which he told her was the pseudonym the murderer had used to procure a safe deposit box. So, with that said, here is the reveal in the novel:

“So we got him. We’d had his house surrounded, and he hadn’t a chance. He walked out of that house tonight in a driving storm, and got into a car, the same car he had been using all along; the car he used to visit Howard Somers and the car in which he had carried Florence Gunther to her death, under pretext of bringing her here to you.

“But he was too quick for us, Miss Bell. That’s why I say I bungled the job. He had some cyanide ready. He looked at the car, saw the men in and around it, said, “Well Gentlemen, I see I am not to have my holiday—”

“Holiday! You’re not telling me—”

“Quietly, Miss Bell! Why should you be grieved or shocked? What pity have you for this monster, whose very wife crawled out of her deathbed to end his wickedness?”

“He is dead?”

“Yes,” he said, “Joseph Holmes is dead.”

And with that I believe that I fainted. [that’s the last line in the book]

There is nothing there remotely similar to the exact phrase, “the butler did it.” As you can see, there was nothing there even related to him being a butler. There were a few things which happened in the house that his living in the house enabled, but much of the criminal activity actually in the house was not in fact Joseph’s doing. The door referred to in the title was a hotel door where a fraud was performed, and was not in the house in which Joseph was a butler. It was not even in the same city as the house in which Joseph buttled. Except possibly as a violation of the tacit convention that the butler is the one person who never, ever commits the murder(s) in a murder mystery, his being a butler is utterly irrelevant either to the murders or to whether one suspects him of those murders.

After a bit of research, I found what seems like evidence that Damon Runyon’s What, No Butler? was first published in Collier’s Weekly, August 5th, 1933. That is not so early that the joke that the butler always does it was necessarily common by the time that The Door was published, three years earlier, but I think it does suggest it. Given what the book actually is, and the timing of it relative to jokes about the butler always being the culprit, I really doubt that The Door was in any way the origin of the phrase. It’s not impossible, but I’d really like to see better evidence for it besides this being the first (and nearly only) book which anyone can find in which a butler actually did it.

 

One thought on “So, The Butler Did It

  1. Pingback: The Butler Did It Again – Chris Lansdown

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