What the Butler Did

The Origins of One of Mystery Fiction’s Most Enduring Clichés
Discussed: An Alarming Appearance of Shirtsleeves, The Golden Age of Mystery Fiction, The Codification of Acceptable Culprits, Unapologetic Feminists, Titillating Fan Fiction, Handy Double Entendres, Nefarious Pasts and Murderous Presents, Incredibly Trusting Ladies and Lords, A Fateful Fur Coat

What the Butler Did

Nate Pedersen
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On a warm summer day in 1947, the most successful mystery author in America was almost killed by her chef. Mary Roberts Rinehart, the “American Agatha Christie,” published over fifty books, many of them best sellers. At one point she had three plays running simultaneously on Broadway. Her breakthrough success was The Circular Staircase, published in 1908 and still in print today.

Rinehart used her wealth to buy an eighteen-room apartment on Park Avenue and a sprawling house in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she spent her summers. In 1947, Rinehart hired a butler for the season in Maine. By hiring a new servant as her butler, Rinehart bypassed one of her longtime employees itching for a promotion. Her Filipino chef, Reyes, desperately wanted the job. Reyes had worked for Rinehart for twenty-five years and felt slighted by her decision.

While Rinehart was reading one afternoon in the library, Reyes strode into the room clad in his shirtsleeves. House protocol required male servants to wear their coats at all times while on duty. Rinehart, noticing the dress-code violation, asked Reyes where his coat was. The chef shouted, “Here is my coat!,” whipped an old pistol out of his pocket, and pulled the trigger at point-blank range.

The gun misfired.

Rinehart leapt to her feet and ran into the next room. Reyes lunged after her, fumbling to reload his gun. Rinehart made it to the servants’ wing, where the chauffeur tackled the chef, pinning him to the ground. Rinehart’s housemaid disarmed Reyes, and the chauffeur tossed the gun into the bushes outside. The housemaid rushed off to find the nitroglycerin tablets Rinehart needed for her heart condition. A breathless Rinehart phoned the police. Reyes, meanwhile, broke free of the chauffeur, grabbed two long carving knives, and chased after Rinehart. The gardener, alerted by the cries for help, came running into the house and joined the fray, helping the chauffeur wrestle Rinehart to the ground. This time they managed to keep him pinned down until the police arrived. (The new butler, meanwhile, had lit out of the house at the first sign of trouble.)

That night, the chef hanged himself in his jail cell.

The almost-butler almost did it.

Life imitates art. Thanks to the guilty butler in her 1930 best-seller The Door, Rinehart is often credited with coining the phrase “the butler did it,” despite the complete absence of the phrase in the book’s 381 pages.

The success of The Door attracted the icy attention of satirists, who in turn made “the butler did it” shorthand for a hackneyed ending.

Of course, it usually takes more than a single occurrence of an event to make it a cliché. The implication, therefore, is that early mystery fiction should be full of butlers offing their betters. But ask anyone, even avid mystery readers, to name a book in which the butler actually did it, and you will likely be met with shrugs and blank stares. So is the whole cliché based on a single example? Or, if not, where are all the murderous butlers?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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