I recently finished reading “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” by Agatha Christie. Among the many suspects under investigation for the titular crime is, of course, the butler. And as I plowed through the book, I got to wondering about a mystery of my own — how did the phrase, “The butler did it” get started?
According to the blog The Straight Dope, most experts give the credit to author Mary Roberts Rinhart. Her mysteries, which often starred ahead-of-her time heroine Hilda Adams, were among the most popular of their day. And in one of those books, “The Door,” which she published in 1930, the butler does indeed commit the crime. (Sorry for the spoiler.)
But, while the cliché quickly entered the lexicon and remains to this day, it’s worth noting that few stories actually involve the butler committing the crime. Again, according to the Straight Dope, part of that can be attributed to very influential 1928 essay entitled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” by S.S. Van Dine.
Dine’s eleventh rule reads like so: “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.” While the sentiment is a rather prejudiced against working people, I do see his point. The reader wants the killer to be someone who will experience an epic fall when he or she is caught. That’s why, in old school (or “golden age”) detective novels, the murderer is often the wealthiest person in the room.
“The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” is often called Christie’s masterpiece (and I recommend it highly). What are some of your favorite detective novels? Do you like your detectives to be elegant and all-knowing like Sherlock Holmes or do you want to see them a little more hard boiled like Sam Spade? What makes for a satisfying mystery?
Thanks for reading,
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