I have a series of posts about the onetime common phrase, “the butler did it”. The first was The Butler Did It? The short version is that it’s curious that this phrase exists since it’s hard to find examples, in mystery novels, of when the butler actually did it. In the series I present a few theories as to how this could be, as well as look at the few examples I could find of when the butler actually did it. I had thought that I was done with this series, but I just came across another example! (Without counting, I think that brings me up to four.) If it’s not obvious, by the way, spoilers will follow, so if you haven’t read the Poirot short stories yet, go do that before continuing.
The story in question is The Adventure of The Italian Nobleman. It was first published in The Sketch magazine, issue 1604, published on October 24, 1923. This is a scant three years after the publication of the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair At Styles. According to Wikipedia, Agatha Christie wrote these short stories for The Sketch at the suggestion of its editor, Bruce Ingram. (The Sketch was an illustrated weekly journal which began its run in February of 1893.) It came towards the end of the group of short stories which would later be collected in the book Poirot Investigates, though of course we can’t be sure that it was not written earlier and merely published later.
Before proceeding, in the interests of full disclosure I should note that, technically, the murderer is not, very strictly speaking, a butler. He is a “valet-butler.” I think I am not being unreasonable in saying that this is close enough, though.
The structure of this story may be closer to the quintessential “the butler did it” than the other examples I can think of, with the possible exception of The Door by Mary Roberts Reinhart. In The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman, the butler had obvious access to the victim but concocted a complicated story which implicated someone who had a more obvious motive. The pursuit, at least by the police, of this other man, distracted us from considering the butler’s story too closely.
Having said that, I should perhaps take a moment to defend the idea of a quintessential “the butler did it” story. If the thing can barely be found in literature and mostly exists mostly as a joke, what right do I have to claim that there is such a thing as an ideal of it? And yet, I think that we can take a stab at it because of some of its features.
In particular, “the butler did it” seems to be describing the murderer being the person least suspected because he is akin to the furniture. S.S. Van Dine’s reason for prohibiting servants from being the criminal, though overstated (and a touch snobbish), gives some insight here:
11. Servants–such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like–must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person–one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.
I think that it’s actually related to another prohibition, number seventeen, which states that a professional criminal must not be the murderer. The unifying theme is stated in rule number nineteen, that the motive for murder must be personal. What all of these things are getting at is that there must actually be some connection between murderer and victim. It’s not enough merely to have been in the same place at the same time. This is what the butler doing it gets wrong (most of the time). A butler’s relationship to his employer is, by definition, that of an employee. This is the opposite of having a personal connection to the victim.
There are exceptions to this, of course. He could have taken on the job of butler merely to gain access to his victim, as part of a revenge plot. He could be a long-lost relative who will be an heir to the victim. There are, undoubtedly, other such schemes for which buttling gives the murderer an excuse to get near his victim. They will all have in common that being the butler is merely a cover story, even if he did actually buttle. What they also have in common is that—this trope aside—the butler is not someone you would ordinarily suspect of having a relationship with the victim. People do not, customarily, employ their relatives. Therefore, if you suspect the author of playing fair you will tend to not suspect the butler.
And here we come to what I think is likely to be the reason for this trope existing, that is, what the trope of “the butler did it” really means. I think that it means that the murderer is the person we least expect because the story is structured so that he would be one of the people who is normally “out of bounds.” (To borrow a sporting metaphor.) I’ve mentioned before in this series that I think that the trope was probably far more common in plays that in novels. If plays were the TV shows of yesteryear, it makes sense that they would tend to be written by hack writers who would try to be clever but would have trouble being really clever. Thus they would be more prone to pick someone the audience has no reason to suspect, like the butler. They can’t just have it be the butler, though, because they would seem random and hence unfair. As a compromise, they then reveal (without warning) that the butler is actually a long lost cousin or an illegitimate nephew or some such. The adage that the butler always did it probably, then, was conceived in response to this sort of plot device. It is advice to expect a hack plot in which the least likely person can be relied upon to be the culprit, though with some contrived connection as an excuse.
If my guess is correct, The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman does not really fit the mold. Its butler is too much in the foreground. Apart from the suspect for whom we have only the butler’s word was there, the butler is in fact the only person with the opportunity to commit the murder. Mrs. Christie is, in this way, playing fair with the audience more than the prototypical butler-did-it story would. The butler is a legitimate suspect, and we are distracted from him only by his own ingenious misdirection. If one stops to think for a moment, one would suspect the butler.
So, all things considered, I’m not sure if it’s right to classify The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman as a butler-did-it story. The butler did do it, of course. That’s not at issue. The question is whether he did it in the right way. With that the question, I don’t think that it’s an example of the trope, if the-butler-did-it even can be called a trope. Still, it’s worth mentioning, since, after all, the butler did do it.