“The butler did it!” is one of the most recognizable cliches in mystery literature. This trope takes one of the least likely suspects, who is usually dismissed throughout the narrative, and presents them as the antagonist in the big reveal.
Here’s a stereotypical example: a wealthy man invites a group of people to dine at his mansion. The wealthy man is suddenly found murdered, and the guests debate over which of them is the culprit. But the murderer turns out to be the butler, whom nobody even bothered to consider.
Origin of “The Butler Did It!”
The concept of the phrase is generally attributed to Mary Roberts Rinehart who wrote The Door, a 1930 novel where the butler is revealed to be the villain. The exact phrase never appeared in her works, though.
It’s believed that this concept came to be because servants in the Victorian era were typically underpaid and overworked, so the idea of servants murdering their employers wasn’t that hard to imagine.
Butlers as antagonists have existed way before The Door. E. Phillips Oppenheim’s 1915 The Black Box featured a gangster who pretended to be an impeccable British butler. His aristocrat employer sends him to accompany his daughter to New York. Being the nasty butler he is, he murders the girl and runs away with her precious jewels. But although Rinehart wasn’t the originator of the concept, it was her work that cemented this particular mystery trope.
Nowadays, writers and readers consider the guilty butler an overdone trope. A lot of people think of it as lazy writing — a desperate attempt to surprise the reader because the writer can’t think of anything else to pull. Today it’s just too well known to be a surprise, which is an element thrillers and mysteries heavily rely on.
Using the Trope of the Guilty Butler
When modern writers do use this trope, it’s usually subverted, inverted, or parodied in some way. For example, in the 2019 film Knives Out, the butler role is swapped with a personal nurse. The nurse does kill her employer, but only by accident, giving him a fatal dose of morphine. With minutes to live, he commits suicide to protect her from punishment. The trope is further subverted when it is revealed another character intentionally messed with the medication.
If you’re writing a mystery, it’s perfectly fine to cast suspicion on butlers and other employees. It enhances the suspense and makes it harder for readers to solve the mystery before the final part of the story. What people frown upon is actually making the butler the antagonist. We see it so often that it can be tiring to read.
Life Imitates Art
Rinehart herself almost became a victim to her own employee. In the late 1940s, she hired a new butler for her summer home. This upset her longtime chef, who had wanted the position for years.
While Rinehart was reading in her library, the chef came in without a jacket, a violation of Rinehart’s dress code for staff. When asked where it was, the chef screamed “Here is my coat!” and pointed a gun at her.
Fortunately, the gun jammed and Rinehart was able to run to the servant’s quarters. Her chauffer tackled the chef to the ground and the housemaid took away the gun.
But while they were calling the police, the chef broke free and chased after Rinehart, this time armed with knives from the kitchen. The chauffeur and gardener were able to catch him again, holding him to the ground until the police arrived.
Rinehart’s actual butler wasn’t much help. He ran as soon as trouble started, hitching a ride to town.
Examples in Literature and Pop Culture
Below is a list of works that employed the “butler did it” trope, either playing it straight or modifying it in some form. Some of these are classics, while others are from more contemporary works.
Spoiler Alert! This trope concerns story endings. As such, I’ll be mentioning the endings of the examples below.
- The Aristocats: This Disney animated film follows the adventures of mother cat Duchess and her three children, Berlioz, Marie, and Toulouse. Their owner, a wealthy and retired opera diva, wants to leave her fortune to the cats. But their butler thinks otherwise, drugging the cats and leaving them in the middle of nowhere.
- Murder Mystery: A married couple is caught up with a murder investigation on a billionaire’s yacht. The culprit, though not an actual butler, had Butler as his original surname.
- Kiss Me Twice: In the future, police are now working side-by-side with A.I. assistants to solve cases. Here, the murderer is an A.I. butler, acting through a robotic tea tray.
- Scary Movie 2: A group of people explore the haunted mansion called Hell House. It’s inhabited by the previous owner’s cruel spirit and it’s revealed that the creepy butler managing the house is in league with it.
- The Batman: In an episode of this animated series, the villain Spellbinder hypnotizes several rich people’s butlers, including Alfred and orders them to steal for him. The title of the episode is “The Butler Did It.”
The Usual Suspects
The “the butler did it” trope was once a legitimate technique in writing thriller and mystery stories. Now it’s become a tired cliche that everyone’s heard off.
It’s still a fun trope to play with during your writing exercises, or you can modify it to fit your narrative. You can make it a red herring of sorts to camouflage your true intentions. Just remember to only use it in a way that makes your narrative better.
Cole is a blog writer and aspiring novelist. He has a degree in Communications and is an advocate of media and information literacy and responsible media practices. Aside from his interest in technology, crafts, and food, he’s also your typical science fiction and fantasy junkie, spending most of his free time reading through an ever-growing to-be-read list. It’s either that or procrastinating over actually writing his book. Wish him luck!