So lately I've been trying to figure out what to post about, and over the course of a couple days things happened (including a friend linking me to this rather awesome thing) which lead up to the formation of this post, and another, but unfortunately some phantom agony meant I couldn't write them up yesterday. Actual post after the song.
Being a fan (and sometimes writer) of crime fiction, there is one trope constantly associated with the genre. In fact it's probably the one thing most people are familiar with without even a glancing knowledge of the genre and its subtypes. Say it with me now:
The butler did it!
...Only, he didn't. Or did he?
The butler did it is an interesting stereotype of detective fiction in that the notion of the hired help always being the killer seems to come from nowhere. It occasionally appears in more recent stories - such as 2004's Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking (although technically he wasn't a butler). Looking back, however, the notion of a butler murderer never really seems to come up. Even if you go all the way back to Edgar Allen Poe, the man effectively responsible for creating detective fiction. In fact, the pioneers of the genre were typically far more inventive than we give them credit for (mostly because nowadays their ideas are run into the ground - case in point: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)
Still, the idea has to have come from somewhere.
The phrase "the butler did it" is usually attributed to Mary Roberts Rinehart. Trouble is, she never actually used the phrase*. Now, in the story "The Door" the butler is, indeed, the killer, but the phrase "the butler did it" does not appear.
Is that it then? The phrase caught on from people talking to one another about a book in 1930?
Possibly. However, it seems unlikely that this would account for the longevity the phrase has enjoyed. And, more importantly, Mary Roberts Rinehart was not the first person to suggest that the butler be the killer.
S.S. Van Dine published Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories in 1928. It was originally run in a magazine, and later included in an omnibus of his Philo Vance stories. These were, as Van Dine saw them, effectively commandments of the genre. (It's fun to note that in rule number seven he quite plainly states "No lesser crime than murder will suffice".)
Van Dine, however, actually wrote off the notion that a servant be a killer. Rule ten states, "The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story" and rule eleven outright says, "A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion".
The phraseology there is, in fact, incredibly important. "One that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion". Why should the butler be coming under suspicion in the first place? In 1928, crime fiction was still relatively new. Indeed, Poe wrote the Dupin stories beginning in 1841, but it wasn't until Arthur Conan Doyle (A Study in Scarlet was first published in 1887) that the genre really caught on. Indeed, the Sherlock Holmes stories have become the template for the majority of crime fiction since, and C. Auguste Dupin is forgotten by all but superfans of the genre.
Yet Arthur Conan Doyle never called culpability down on the butler. Not exactly, anyway. In The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual the butler Brunton is found to be stealing from Musgrave, and soon both he and the maid disappear. Eventually, Brunton is found dead beside a chest. So, in a sense, the butler did it inasmuch as he is guilty of theft, but it's not really the theft so much as the disappearance of Brunton and Rachel that brings the story about in the first place.
Typically when one says "the butler did it", one thinks of murder. Of course, this may have more to do with the fact that most detective fiction concerns murder, and even in those stories where it is not a murder, murder comes to be suspected.
Probably the earliest example of a butler being the murderer comes from The Brothers Karamazov, although how popular a serialized piece of Russian literature was to American and British audiences in 1880 is not something I have much knowledge of.
Ultimately, the notion of "the butler did it" is something that does come up in detective fiction, but nowhere near as often as people might think. I can think of four stories where this notion is played pretty straight. Five if you count Murder on the Orient Express. If we think of it in terms of servants/servers, then it can be expanded a bit more, but ultimately even if we're pretty liberal in our definition of "the butler did it" I can think of only ten pieces of literature. Of course, this doesn't mean there aren't more. However, I seriously doubt the "more" places it into the sort of numbers people expect.
"The butler did it" probably became a grievance for the very reason it would first be employed. The butler is the ultimate killer. No one really thinks of the butler - they're just there, going about their business, a bit like a cabbie. They can wander freely from room to room free of suspicion, and no one really expects the butler to have a knife up his sleeve or pull a gun from under his lapel. Innovative at first, but perhaps seen as bit of a cop-out, as in most stories the butler is a side character of little to no importance (hence the rules above**).
The moral of the story?
"The butler did it" is like lupus. It's never the butler.
Except when it is.
*Just like "Beam me up, Scotty" or "Elementary, my dear Watson", the phrase was never actually spoken.
**It is interesting to note that if one actually followed S.S. Van Dine's rules, you'd eventually have to rule out Poe, Conan Doyle, and Christie, the three real pioneers and codifiers of the genre.