The Butler Did It Again

(This is a follow-up to a series of blog posts on the subject, the most recent being here.) As I was reading another article on the origin of the phrase, “the butler did it,” my attention was drawn to the story The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner, by Herbert Jenkins. Published in 1921, it preceded The Door by nine years. (Interestingly, Herbert Jenkins owned the publishing house which published P.G. Wodehouse’s books, most famously the stories of Jeeves and Wooster.) I tracked down a copy and read it. (There’s a free ebook version of the book Malcolm Sage, Detective on kindle, which collects all of Jenkins detective stories—if you want to read it I suggest you do it now because there will be spoilers below).

Jenkins’ detective was Malcolm Sage, who was at least vaguely in the mold of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, by which I mean that he was both very observant of physical details and very eccentric. All of  the stories about Malcolm Sage were short stories, which is very significant to understanding the relationship of this story to the phrase, “the butler did it”.

Novels and short stories are very different things in any genre, but this is especially true of murder mysteries. Novels tend to focus on the unraveling of intertwining mysteries, which is to say the elimination of red herrings. This is somewhat necessitated by the length of a novel; each red herring forms a sort of sub-mystery, which allows one to enjoy the solving of mysteries over and over throughout the course of a novel. There are exceptions, of course. It is possible to combine a mystery with some other genre where the other genre takes up most of the page count. Adventure is the obvious example; a mystery/adventure works well where each clue is the reward at the end of an adventure. To some degree the Hardy Boys books were like this, and to a lesser extent this is often true of the Cadfael stories. The Virgin in the Ice and The Summer of the Danes are both great examples of where the adventure takes up more pages than the mystery. (Both are excellent novels.)

For related reasons—though there are notable exceptions—murder mystery novels don’t tend to focus on figuring out a single ingenious mechanism for concealing the murder(er) for which the evidence was present at the crime scene. By contrast, this is extremely common in short stories. Among other things, they don’t have the space for disentangling red herrings. Short stories which were printed in magazines tended to be extremely short, sometimes only a few thousand words. It also is simply the right size for that sort of game.

The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner is a locked-room mystery. There is one obvious suspect: a nephew of whose impending marriage the deceased disapproves and who will be disinherited on the morrow. The butler was the last to see the deceased alive, and the body was discovered in the library, with all of the doors and windows locked from within. The deceased was staged to look like suicide, and the local police take it at face value. Malcolm Sage makes numerous measurements and observations, and also directs that the photographer attached to his detective agency take a number of photographs. Malcolm Sage is so fond of photographs as evidence that he gives a lecture on their importance to the local police detective inspector. Eventually he reveals that the butler, who had only been working in his position for six months and was highly praised for the excellence of his work, is the culprit. Sage had taken supposedly exclusionary fingerprints from everyone, and used those to find out that the butler had a criminal record and was still wanted. Further, he explained that the butler had put a small metal rod through the hole in the key’s handle and using a string attached to it turned the lock by pulling on the string with the door closed. Once the key turned far enough, the metal rod fell out of the hole in the key’s handle, and he used the string to pull the rod under the door and retrieve it.

Unlike the butler in The Door, this time at least the butler was actually taking advantage of his role as butler in committing the murder. His master didn’t think anything about his coming from behind because it’s the sort of thing that butlers do, and moreover he had an excuse for being in the house after the rest of the household had gone to sleep because he lived there. So at least in this case butling was relevant to the butler’s commission of the crime.

None of the articles I’ve seen so far have cited The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner as having had any influence on the phrase, but then again none of them have cited any evidence for why The Door did have influence, either. It leaves me wondering whether any of this is actually relevant to the phrase I’ve been considering. It might well not be. With murder mysteries having been quite popular ever since Sherlock Holmes first studied scarlet, I assume that there were a great many short stories in the weekly and monthly publications of the early 1900s which have largely been lost to the sands of time. In the days before television and even before radio plays were particularly popular, theatrical plays were quite popular. Wherever there is a maw gaping for novelty, there will be people trying to fill it. Certainly this is the source that the character Broadway cited as his authority that all murders were committed by butlers in the 1933 short story, What, No Butler? I’m disinclined to think that much of the source was movies, though I don’t have any hard evidence for that. Murder mysteries don’t lend themselves well to silent films, though I have no doubt that somebody tried it at least once. The Jazz Singer was the first talkie, in 1927. Talkies took over quite quickly, as I gather, dominating film no later than the mid-1930s and probably in the early 1930s, but that’s rather close to when What, No Butler? was written to have embedded itself in the culture as a common trope by then.

I’m left where I was before, wondering where this trope came from. Perhaps I’ll be successful in tracking down contemporary reviews of The Door, which might be illuminating, but unfortunately a quick google search didn’t turn up anything. I might have to resort to going to the library!

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