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.


The Butler is Still Doing It

As I mentioned, I’ve been reading Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Door. Right now I’m in Chapter 22 (page 266 of 381). When I had finished the first two chapters I said:

It will be interesting to see where the story goes. So far, it promises to be complicated.

I am at the moment rather unclear as to whether I would call the story complicated. There are a reasonably large number of characters, and in a sense there’s a lot going on, but mostly what’s happening is all detail work and hand-wringing. So far three people have been murdered, three people have been assaulted and knocked unconscious, and the narrator herself has been locked in the basement all night. And yet it doesn’t much feel as if anything has really happened.

Now, it is possible that since I already know that the butler did it, things are not as suspenseful as they would be the first time I read through. This is likely to be the case, and though it piques my interest to look at the clues which are given to see how well we’re able to guess who the murderer is, I can’t really read it giving equal weight to red herrings. But at the same time, in good detective fiction red herrings are essentially mini-mysteries. Part of the task of detection is to unravel the intertwining mysteries.

Which actually brings me to one of the big problems I have with The Door. There is no detective. The Door is, basically, the memoirs of a woman who was present while a mystery happened and was eventually solved. She had, at the time, some interest in figuring out what happened, but not a great deal. She actively destroyed evidence at one point, and bellyached about it interminably before it turned out to have been pointless. And all of the memoirs are filled with description of how emotional everyone looked and how anguished it later turned out to be. Which brings me to her use of foreshadowing.

The Wikipedia page on Mary Roberts Rinehart says that she “is also considered to have invented the ‘Had-I-But-Known‘ school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).” I’m coming to wish that she hadn’t. In The Door it takes the form of never-ending hints about what terrible things were to happen, together with confirmations or denials of things discovered in the present. It seems to me that these are used primarily to liven up the story whenever it gets slow, which it does quite often. But spicing up bland food (already cooked) is not often very successful, even with food, and the effect after a while is somewhat akin to “DANGER! SUDDEN DROP!” signs placed periodically along a bumpy railroad to convince you that you’re actually on a roller coaster. Worse, when you finally get far enough along in the narrative to see the description of something which was foreshadowed, it’s typically underwhelming. When this has happened a few times, one becomes very skeptical of fresh foreshadowing.

Which also brings up the problem of the constant use of foreshadowing. To stretch the metaphor a bit, two thirds into the book you shouldn’t be foreshadowing any more, you should have moved on to the actual shadowing. (I know the metaphor is really from the shadow which precedes a back-lit person into a room, but it works better here if we take it to be like watching someone draw a picture, and there is some vague outline shadowing done before the picture begins in earnest, and real shadowing must be done to make the picture look realistic.) The book feels a bit like one of those songs that’s all introduction without ever getting to the main part of the song. I’ve given up hope that the preparation was for anything but the last chapter, and I’m almost a little inclined to be sympathetic to Raymond Chandler’s complaint that in a conventional mystery all of the scenes exist solely for the ending. Certainly that’s not true of Chesterton, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Ellis Peters, though Chesterton is a somewhat unfair comparison because all of the Father Brown stories were short stories, which are artistically very different from novels. (Chandler’s complaint is also not true of Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, but it’s not quite so entirely wrong of Christie as it is of the others.) But perhaps Chandler had only read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novels. That still doesn’t excuse his own detective stories, but perhaps it does contextualize them, at least.

With respect to the question of whether the butler is a legitimate suspect, at the moment I’m actually inclined to say no. There is enough evidence sprinkled throughout that might line up to him, but outside of one small moment when he helped the main character to burn a piece of evidence that her cousin might have been the murderer, he really has no personality or other characteristics. Curiously, this is not true of the prime suspect’s manservant, who actually is enough of a character in the story that one might reasonably suspect him. So this is not a case of the servant/rich person divide, but simply one of the character not being rendered as much of a character. I think that it’s mostly that anything that the butler has done so far falls entirely within the stereotype of the faithful butler; as such he really is like a piece of the furniture. Now, a butler would not need to violate the stereotype to a great degree in order to qualify as a legitimate suspect; we really just need someone in the story to treat him as human. It would be enough for someone to suspect the butler, even if it’s just a fellow servant who reports some suspicious activity of the butler to the detective.

To give an example of something very similar being done well, in Gaudy Night Dorothy L. Sayers makes the college servants all very credible suspects. The college professors are not very willing to accept this, but it is very much painted as the contrast between their social prejudices and their conscious desire to avoid their social prejudices which in the end keeps them from looking at the servants as credible suspects. To the reader, however, they remain very much within the realm of possibility throughout the book.

There is still about a third of the book for me to get through, so there is certainly time for things to change, and I’m curious to see whether it in fact does. In fairness the murderer is described from the outset as being very clever and cunning, and a clever, cunning murderer would not be an obvious suspect right from the beginning.

The Door

It has been claimed that The Door, by Mary Roberts Rinehart was the origin of the phrase, “The butler did it.” Published in 1930, it’s the only example of a serious (as opposed to satirical) mystery in which the butler actually did do it. When I read Wikipedia’s entry on Mary Roberts Rinehart, it described her as the American Agatha Christie, in that she sold a great many copies of her books. No one, so far as I know, has actually come close to Agatha Christie, whose books have sold something like 2 billion copies, but still, Rinehart was apparently quite popular in her day.

So I became curious. Most of my exposure to American mystery so far has been the hard-boiled detectives which I didn’t like at all, so I was curious what an American attempt at the sort of mystery which I like better would look like. I’m also interested to see what the mystery story in which the butler did it looks like. Obviously I won’t get the full effect since I already know who the culprit is, but even so, it will be interesting to see how it was constructed.

I’ve read a little over five chapters so far, and Rinehart has an interesting style. She makes heavy use of foreshadowing. I think that this has two effects. One is to suggest a well-designed plot, since the author clearly knows enough about what happened later to talk about it now. The other is closer to making a virtue of necessity, since without the foreshadowing the story would so far have been deadly dull. For some reason Rinehart introduces most of the characters and places right at the beginning, without having much of anything for them to do yet, so the foreshadowing helps us to know that they are actually relevant.

It’s also interesting to note that she makes use of the dogs not barking proving that a culprit was known to the dogs. It is fairly realistic to dogs, though it’s often somewhat unrealistically used because dogs often can’t tell who someone is until they see him, and will bark when they first hear him, or when a noise wakes them up, etc. Detectives often take probabilities as certainties, so it’s a common fault, and so far not much of anything has been made of the dogs not barking.

It will be interesting to see where the story goes. So far, it promises to be complicated.