A Comment on The Butler Did It

On my recent post The Butler Did It: Poirot Style, I got an interesting comment from Paul. It brings up some points which I would like to discuss at greater length.

Somewhere I heard the phrase “nobody’s a hero to his valet” which could apply to his butler.

So I disagree that a murder by the butler is out of bounds because the butler is an employee “thus” not personally connected to the victim.

An employer could very well give an employee Very Good Reasons for the employee to want his boss dead.

And yes, a valet or a butler could quit (although getting a good reference might be a problem), but have other reasons to not quit.

One thought on the butler, as I understand the job, the butler manages the household staff so might likely know “when the best time/place to kill somebody without witnesses”. 👿

On the subject of no one being a hero to his valet, I believe that this is because the man is an object of professional aid to the valet; he is passive while the valet helps him to dress. The valet, though a servant, is an intrinsically superior position during the performance of his duties. This is not precisely the same for a butler, who would not, in the ordinary course of things, lay his hands upon his master. Which brings us to the last point, about the butler managing the household staff. This will depend to some degree on the particular household, as the jobs of servants were somewhat elastic with the actual number of servants present.

In Victorian times and through (about) World War II, butlers did tend to be in charge of the servants in midsize to large households. They did not tend to be present in smaller houses, and in the very great houses there might be a steward who was in charge of the domestic staff with the butler taking on his more historical role of being in charge of the wines, or somewhat more expansively, of the food and drink. (The term “butler” comes from words in older languages meaning, basically, bottler, i.e. one in charge of the bottles.) Murder mysteries don’t tend to be set in the mansions of kings or similar, though, so I think it would be reasonable to presume butlers will be in charge of the household staff and thus in a good position to arrange a time that is especially convenient for murdering someone. But this, in fact, raises something of a problem in choosing the butler as the murderer—it makes it too easy for the murderer.

I know that most most of the rules of detective stories focus on not making it too easy for the detective, but it is actually the case that if one makes it too easy for the murderer, it spoils the fun. Murder mysteries are meant to be a human drama, and in a human drama the reader sympathizes with both sides of the puzzle. We want the detective to win, but at the same time we do also need to be able to see ourselves in the role of the murderer, if for no other reason than we have to think like him in order to try to catch him before the detective does. A murderer who merely has special powers (such as being able to arrange everyone to avoid witnesses) is too unlike us. And then there’s the even more basic problem that the puzzle has to be difficult to solve or there’s no fun in solving it. That’s why the dumb police detective always arrests some poor servant, since the servants have obvious opportunity. Abusing a position of trust is too easy.

All that said, I think that Paul is right that the butler could make a reasonable choice for the murderer within the bounds of the murder having to be personal. Off the top of my head, he could know that the victim was carrying on some evil that he thought needed to be stopped. The employer taking advantage of serving women would work for this. The butler could know that his employer committed some heinous crime and got away with it (but without sufficient legal proof to ensure a conviction). The butler could do it for the sake of a child that the victim was mistreating, or even just to bring the inheritance to the adult child from whom help was being cruelly withheld in getting started in the world. The butler could even secretly desire to have an affair with his master’s wife and hope that by killing his master he will have cleared his chance to take his master’s place.

I think that if one wanted to take this approach, it would be important to make sure that the butler is noticed as a character. He would need to be active during the investigation. Doing things outside of his duties, and speaking not only when spoken to. If he remained entirely passive and looking like the normal servant, who is there in the typical mystery only to furnish some alibis and clues, the typical reader would, I think, feel he had been treated unfairly. Yes, the reader is hoping that the writer will try hard to trick him, but at the same time the trickery has to be of a certain sort. A double-bluff, such as having somebody else frame the murderer for the crime, is a great sort of trick. Bluffing that someone is out of bounds when they’re not isn’t the right sort of trick. In real life someone might creep over to his neighbor’s house during a dinner party to murder him, hoping to throw suspicion on the guests. In a murder mystery, if someone dies during a dinner party in an mansion and it isn’t one of the guests, but it is revealed in the last page that the detective found the neighbor’s footprints, the writer has played foul. Granted, I’ve emphasized it by having the writer play double-foul by not revealing the clue which incriminated the neighbor, but even if there were some tracks leading to the neighbor’s house, if they were not cunningly planted by a dinner guest in order to make the absurd suggestion that it was the neighbor, the reader would still justifiably feel aggrieved. It’s not on any of the lists, but we do need some reason to doubt that the murderer committed the crime. Having an obvious criminal and not going with it because the detective is too clever for his own good is the stuff of parodies. (Quite literally. If you want to read such a parody, The Viaduct Murder is an excellent example of exactly this.)

I think that a decent example of what I mean about how to do this well can be found in the Poirot story which my previous blog post was about: The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman. In it the butler is quite prominent. We get all sorts of information from him which he volunteers beyond the scope of the ordinary butler. He stayed to overhear a conversation with his master; a thing which no ordinary butler would have done. He is an obvious suspect, but manufactured for us a still more obvious suspect. Moreover, there is evidence in the beginning to make us suspicious of the butler’s story, such as the last course not having been eaten by anyone, and the telephone having been on the receiver, requiring the dying man to have replaced the receiver as he gasped out his last breath. These incongruities make us notice the butler early on, such that his being the culprit is a shock we were prepared for. Moreover, he did not merely hide in his job. He took an active role in the misdirection after the crime. He was caught, not by process of elimination, or by fingerprint identification as being a notorious criminal, but by having made mistakes which Poirot noticed and caught him by. This, I think, is the sort of template to follow if one wants to write a mystery in which the butler did it.

2 thoughts on “A Comment on The Butler Did It

  1. Mary

    I believe it’s more than the valet sees the hero in his unheroic moments — in bunny slippers, with unkempt hair, cranky because there’s strawberry jam rather than orange marmalade — than his passivity. After all, the valet has plenty of chances to see him in (trivial) action.

    This, of course, led to Hegel’s counter: “No man is a hero to his valet. This is not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.”

    Liked by 1 person

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