If you’re a fan of whodunnit murder mysteries (and even if you aren’t), you’ve likely heard the phrase: the butler did it. It’s shorthand for a seemingly common plot which goes like this:
A group of people are invited to a dinner at a wealthy person’s private estate and the wealthy person is killed while they are all eating dinner. The guests try to determine who among them is the killer, each accusing others based on little evidence. Eventually they discover the guilty party is the butler – a person so easy to ignore that no one even considered him.
Under the assumption this plotline is common and easy to predict, the phrase has taken on a dismissive vibe. If you don’t enjoy a movie or a book, the soundbite review might be “the butler did it.” My movie loving friend describes a boring party or a listless sporting event with the flippant remark: the butler did it.
On the surface, this explanation is plausible. At the time, the author Mary Roberts Rinehart was a household name, having written several bestsellers. Even though she wrote this novel quickly and some reviewers viewed it as sloppy, The Door also became a bestseller. Presumably, it became well known that the butler did it.
However, there’s a plot twist. There weren’t many books published before The Door in which the butler did it; by one estimate, it had only happened twice before then. So, the popularity of the book might explain how the phrase became common but not how it ended up being associated with predictability.
According to one analysis, that explanation comes from silent films. Between 1915 and 1922, there were at least 16 movies in which the butler committed or was suspected of committing a crime. If the butler did it 16 times in 7 years, it certainly might explain while people felt the plotline was overused.
In fact, after that 7-year run of silent films and about a year before The Door was published, noted critic and detective novelist SS Van Dine wrote an essay titled “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.” One of the rules included this advice: “A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit… It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person—one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.” In other words, the butler shouldn’t do it.
Regardless of the original source, the plotline is now looked down upon as unoriginal and the phrase is well-embedded in the English language to refer to something uninspiring. Hopefully, you don’t describe this article to others with a dismissive ‘the butler did it.’