Monday, February 25, 2013

The Butler Did It?

 Guest post by K.B. Owen, @kbowenwriter

I absolutely love mysteries, and if you’re here at Elizabeth’s site, you probably do, too.  Have you ever wondered, though, about some of the conventions in mystery genres?  Take the phrase "The Butler Did It" - how did that come to be such a cliched reference in mystery stories?

Did the butler - or another servant in the household of a wealthy murder victim - really "do it"?  Ever?  And in enough mystery novels to deserve the cliche?  Any of you mystery readers remember a time when the butler committed the murder in a novel?

Me neither.

So I started my search (after all, there are a lot of novels out there I'm not familiar with; no one can read them all) for stories with the butler as the culprit.  Guess what?  There is only one famous mystery novel I could find that uses the butler (more about this below).  Even if there are more examples that I've overlooked, they seem too obscure for internet search engines, and less likely to be in our collective consciousness.
So, do we have a trope/cliche that doesn't deserve the name?


Most mystery aficionados agree that Golden Age mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, author of over a dozen mystery novels in the "had-I-but-known" female-centric flashback style, was the author who started (and ended) the trope.  While none of her books ever contained the words "the butler did it," one of her wildly-popular mystery novels (SPOILER ALERT), The Door (1930) has the butler as the murderer.  It was written in a hurry (for the specifics behind this, check out this great post), but still sold very well, as she was a household name by that point.

Even before the publication of The Door, however, Golden Age critics were poised to decry the use of a “mere” servant as a murderer.  S.S. Van Dine's "20 rules for writing mystery stories" (1928) lists it as No-No #11:

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.

Notice the phrase "a decidedly worth-while person."  In the remnants of the still class-rigid nineteen-twenties (containing echoes of its Victorian antecedents), servants weren't considered good material for a chief antagonist in an intellectual whodunnit.  

Why?  Well, in terms of both perception and reality, working-class servants didn't have the same education (and therefore, it was assumed, the intellect) as their employers, so the ability to outwit their “betters” was considered an absurd notion.  They were considered rather shady characters, of weaker moral fiber.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that servants didn’t make terrific suspects in mystery novels.  "Country-house" mysteries have long been rife with corrupt cooks, spying footmen, pregnant parlor maids, and so on.  And there’s a very good reason why they were a natural target of suspicion.    

We need to step back into the 19th century (where the modern detective/mystery genre originated); here, the Victorians were looking at a brave new world of domestic service. 

The 19th Century Servant Class:

Before the Industrial Revolution really got going mid-century, a servant and a servant’s parents could have worked their entire lives in their employer’s household, seeing the older generation of their employer’s family decline and pass away, and young heirs grow up and take over.  Such service would have been a source of pride and loyalty.  What servants wouldn’t have affection for the new heir, when he’s remembered as the mischievous boy who put a frog in the governess’s knitting basket?  They’ve known him all his life.

But then the economy exploded with a wealth of job opportunities in factories, railroads and mercantilism.  As people left for jobs elsewhere, servants were harder to come by and stayed on for a shorter time.  The concept of the “born and bred”  faithful servant was becoming an anachronism. 

Still, upper-class (and even middle-class) Victorian households needed domestics.  They were an inescapable fact of life: they fetched the water, stoked the fires, cooked the meals, did the laundry, and provided a barrier to the inconveniences of the outside world.  To some degree, they inhabited separate spaces: separate stairs, entrances, and rooms to which they were relegated whenever possible.  Despite this separation, their duties made them ever-present in the family spaces.

 So convenience had its price, namely, in lack of privacy.  Servants knew everything, saw everything - the family's petty quarrels, the little personal embarrassments of day-to-day living - all while being treated as second-class citizens and paid a pittance.  Servants were the outsiders, with only the fragile loyalty gained from the employer's purse. 

No wonder Victorian families were nervous.

The Butler as Villain:

So why waste all that great potential by not making the butler the culprit?  He’s an elevated-enough servant, right?  Was it just to adhere to the “Golden Age” mystery convention of avoiding the obvious solution at all costs (sometimes at the cost of a coherent plot line)?  Or because he wasn’t deemed smart enough to be an arch-villain? 

Ah, but what if you did make him smart enough?

Maybe that’s the problem.  Perhaps such a cunning adversary might lend the servant class a power that no middle/upper-class reader of the time would have been comfortable with.  A criminal who could match wits with the master of the house, and the detective.  Someone who – gasp – "almost" gets away with it.  Just a theory.

I wonder: do we have any social/class limitations like that today, or is everyone fair game to be the criminal nowadays?  What do you think?  Elizabeth and I would love you to share your thoughts!

Elizabeth, thank you so much for hosting me today.  I had a blast!


 K.B. Owen taught college English for nearly two decades at universities in Connecticut and Washington, DC, and holds a doctorate in 19th century British literature. A mystery lover since she can remember, she drew upon her teaching experiences in creating her amateur sleuth, Professor Concordia Wells. Unlike the fictional Miss Wells, K.B. did not have to conduct lectures in a bustle and full skirts. No doubt many people are thankful about that.
She now resides in Virginia with her husband and three sons. She recently finished the second book in the series, and is busily planning Concordia’s next adventure. Check out her website for more historical mystery fun:

An unseemly lesson…in murder.
The year is 1896, and Professor Concordia Wells has her hands full: teaching classes, acting as live-in chaperone to a cottage of lively female students, and directing the student play, Macbeth.

But mystery and murder are not confined to the stage. Malicious pranks, arson, money troubles, and the apparent suicide of a college official create turmoil at the women’s college. For Concordia, it becomes personal when a family member dies of a mysterious illness, and her best friend is attacked and left for dead.

With her friend still in danger and her beloved school facing certain ruin, Concordia knows that she must act. But uncovering secrets is a dangerous business, and there are some who do not appreciate the unseemly inquiries and bold actions of the young lady professor. Can she discover the ones responsible…before she becomes the next target?

Absorbing in its memorable characters, non-stop plot twists, and depiction of life in a late-nineteenth century women’s college, Dangerous and Unseemly is a suspenseful and engaging contribution to the cozy historical mystery genre. Fans of Harriet Vane and Maisie Dobbs will find in Concordia Wells a new heroine to fall in love with.
Available at:

How about a little mystery fun...and a prize! Each stop in K.B. Owen's book launch tour has a mystery question to answer. When you have them all, unscramble the answers to which ROOM, WEAPON, and SUSPECT, and email Kathy at kbowenwriter(at)gmail(dot)com. She'll announce the winner (chosen from the correct entries) at Karen McFarland's blog (, the last stop of the tour. What do you win? A free ebook copy of Dangerous and Unseemly, and a $25 gift card of your choice to either Starbucks, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble! If you run into a few stumpers - no problem! Check out her Mystery Quizzes page for links to the answers. If you've joined us in the middle of the tour, the complete list of Book Tour hosts can be found at Good luck!

One of the following is NOT a rule of Golden Age detective fiction, as famously listed by literary critic Ronald Knox (in a preface to a 1929 collection of detective stories). Which is it?
A) No more than one secret room or passage is allowable
B) The butler should be the culprit
C) No Chinaman must figure in the story
D) Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we are duly prepared for them