by | Sep 1, 2020 | Mystery Minute | 2 comments

ZJ Czupor is an award-winning writer. His current novel, Cut Right Through Me, is seeking representation. He is vice president of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of Mystery Writers of America and writes a monthly column, “The Mystery Minute.” He also co-chairs Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s annual literary competition. In 1990, he and his wife co-founded The InterPro Group, one of Denver’s leading marketing and public relations firms. They are proud to be owned by two beautiful, and way too smart, rescue collies.

by ZJ Czupor

The Butler Did It

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s (1859–1930) “The Musgrave Ritual” an 1893 detective story from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, a butler plays an important plot point. While not the central villain, the butler in this tale, however, is found dead beside the Musgrave family treasure. So begins the appearance of butler’s in mystery novels.

In 1921, the British novelist Herbert George Jenkins (1876-1923), in his novel The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner, mentions a criminal butler.

Five years later (1926), in Agatha Christie’s (1890–1976) novel, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, suspicion falls on a man named Parker, who was Ackroyd’s butler. Parker, of course, had a criminal past.

But the phrase, “The butler did it” is most commonly attributed to Pittsburgh native Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958)—known as the “American Agatha Christie.” Interestingly, she preceded Christie by fourteen years and was one of the most successful American mystery writers of the early 20th century.

Mary was a popular writer who authored more than fifty novels, many of which were best sellers. She also was a prolific playwright. At one point, three of her plays ran simultaneously on Broadway. 

The impetus that set Mary to writing was the need for money. The stock market crash of 1901 hurt her and her husband financially. They lost all their savings putting them $12,000 in debt, or about $347,000 in today’s dollars. She had been a nurse, a doctor’s wife, and mother to three sons. She took up writing to earn income. In 1908, at the age of 31, she published her first novel, The Circular Staircase, which sold 1.25 million copies.

Two of her sons, Stanley Jr. and Ted, co-founded Farrar & Rinehart publishing company in New York in 1929.

In 1930, her novel The Door was published in which (spoiler alert) the butler did it. However, the words “the butler did it” do not appear in the book. 

Say what?

It wasn’t until her novel was adapted into a musical comedy called, The Butler Did It, Singing,” that the phrase was attributed to Mary.

The play’s plot features Miss Maple, a wealthy widow, who invites a group of mystery writers to an isolated house where they must impersonate their fictional detectives. She places scary items around including a hairy face at the window and the threat of an escaped lunatic. Trouble breaks out when a dead body appears on the sitting room carpet. The dead body wasn’t planned.

Over time, the trope became so popular it was considered a cliché and often satirized. For example, in 1933, Damon Runyon (1880–1946) published the satirical story, “What, No Butler?”

Mary was also the first writer to use the device where the story’s narrator is the “once naïve but now older and wiser woman.” 

In 1920, she created a super-criminal character called The Bat—in a play that was a smash hit on Broadway. The story combined elements of mystery and comedy and featured a masked criminal whose calling card was a black paper bat that he tacked to doors. Life Magazine claimed more than ten million people saw the play and it grossed more than $9 million. The novel of the same name is cited by Bob Kane (1915–1998) as one of his inspirations for the famous DC Comics superhero we know as “Batman.”

Her novel The Bat was released in 1933 by RCA Victor as one of the earliest talking book recordings.

Mary’s style had a lot in common with the hardboiled school of detective fiction and is part of the American school of scientific detection. Her most memorable tales combined murder, love, ingenuity, and humor in a distinct style. The New York Times said, “She helped the mystery story grow up.”

After Mary published her last novel, A Light in the Window (1954), she was crowned with a Mystery Writers of America Special Award. 

After her husband’s death, Mary almost was the victim of a murder attempt on her life. Her long-time servant and chef Blas Reyes, a Filipino, was distressed he couldn’t go home. He first tried shooting Mary, but the pistol wouldn’t fire. He then tried slashing her with kitchen knives but was stopped in time by her gardener and chauffeur. Authorities considered it an act of insanity. The next day Reyes committed suicide in his jail cell. 

Mary died at 82 in New York City. She and her husband are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. At the time of her death—1958—her novels had sold over ten million copies. 

Thank you for this enlightening piece about Mary Roberts Rinehart, ZJ! Readers, do you have a favorite mystery book that includes a suspicious butler? 

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  1. Rogue Women Writers

    What a fascinating story about Mary Rinehart and her creation of "The butler did it" scenarios. What a talented writer she was!! And that character, Miss Maple, certainly sounds like the precursor of the "Miss Marple" series….which are some of our favorite stories today. Thanks for joining us here!….Karna Small Bodman

  2. Lisa Black

    I'm a huge Mary Roberts Rhinehart fan!! And coincidentally, I live near Cabbage Key, Florida, which for a while was called Rhinehart Isle. It is only accessible by boat. One of her sons fell in love with the key and built a house and smaller cottages there, and she used to stay there a lot. (Unfortunately the marriage didn't work out in the long run, and her ex-daughter-in-law Gratia, heiress of the Corning Glass fortune, got the island in the divorce.) Nowadays there is a restaurant referred to simply as 'in the old house' with dollar bills stapled to the walls and is supposedly where Jimmy Buffet wrote 'cheeseburger in paradise', which is almost certainly not true.
    I never knew they made a musical out of one of her books!!! I wish I could have seen that.