The butler did it.
A few years ago, in what turned out to be a hopeless attempt to keep up with Curtis Evan’s rapid-fire re-introduction of forgotten GAD crime authors to modern audiences, I downloaded works by several of these august personages. My method of choosing was non-scientific: either the title or the blurb caught my attention, and I thought, “Why not?” This casual attitude was made all the easier by the attractive initial pricing of these titles by Dean Street Press and others – for as little as ninety-nine cents, I could sample mystery novels that had long been all but lost to the reading public.
Naturally, some of these books were more suited to my taste than others. I loved Knock, Murderer, Knock by Harriet Rutland (which is still only 99 cents on Amazon; you should try it) but was maybe less bowled over by E.R. Punshon’s Constable Bobby Owen. Then there was the author whose output during the 1920’s was fairly prolific and who seemed to be another must-read from another era. (Curtis had even made a connection to Christie in his always fascinating biographical posts.) I picked the title that I liked the best, and while I can’t say I especially enjoyed it – and have yet to try another of her books – I must say that the final revelation where we learn that the butler did it left me greatly surprised.
Surprised . . . and disappointed. The concept of the butler doing it is a joke. Some might call it a cliché but that’s not the case at all. Because the butler never does it.
This, like so many sweeping statements, is, of course, untrue. A number of early mystery writers, most notably Arthur Conan Doyle, populated their stories with villainous servants. I myself had the great pleasure of playing a nasty butler when I was cast in college as Watkins, the manservant to the Raja of Rukh in William Archer’s 1921 melodrama, The Green Goddess. I wasn’t a murderer; I wasn’t even the main villain! But I was a duplicitous piece of goods, and I came to a nasty end when the hero lifted me up and tossed me off the balcony of my master’s palace, inconveniently located at the top of a Himalayan mountain. (Less conveniently, on the Saturday night performance, somebody removed the crash pad behind the set, and I landed painfully in a row of footlights. I couldn’t cry out, I couldn’t rise and limp off – the play was still going on. I signaled frantically to a crew member in the wings that I was broken, and he crawled on his belly behind the painted wall of the balcony until he reached my battered body and . . . shot a water pistol into my face.)
Butler at a Himalayan plane crash (I would’ve been the one in the derby.)
Butlers never dunnit for the same reason that parlor maids, valets, cooks, stable boys, chauffeurs, and housekeepers never dunnit. Because they are servants. And in the small, snobby world of Golden Age Detection, servants did not count as people. S.S. Van Dine considered the unmasking of a servant as the killer “too easy” because, after all, with their decreased moral fiber and desperate need for money and independence, why wouldn’t they murder their employers in their beds?!? And so Van Dine conceived the Eleventh Commandment:
“Servants–such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like–must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person–one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.”
The precedent for this hearkens back to Greek tragedy, which sought to ennoble the viewing experience by centering the plots on kings and heroes. Servants might help out, they might move things along with a petty crime even, but if you were looking for a servant to play a major role, you had to turn to the plebeian pleasures of comedy. Shakespeare took up this same mantle: the gravediggers in Hamlet and the Porter in Macbeth provide brief comic relief before the intensely tragic end of the hero (and nearly everyone else). Women servants play more significant roles in Shakespeare: the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet can be quite funny, but she is also a better mother to Juliet than Lady Capulet and contributes a great deal to the machinations leading to the young lovers’ deaths. Emilia in Othello is a rich, complex character with a tragic story of her own, but she elevated to this status by being Iago’s wife, not Desdemona’s maidservant.
SPOILER ALERT: The next paragraph discusses several classic mystery novels and gives away the ending. Skip one paragraph ahead if you do not wish to have the novel spoiled for you.
In 1930, Mary Roberts Rinehart attempted to earn her moniker as “the American Agatha Christie” by breaking Commandment #11. (Christie had broken – or would break – most of Van Dine’s other rules, but the only actualbutler who proves to be a murderer appears in a completely different sort of novel.) The unmasking of the butler must have surprised some readers; the only problem is getting through this over-long, pedestrian example of the “Had I But Known” school to get to the ending. Ngaio Marsh made a servant – not the butler, though – the killer in one of her most polarizing novels, Surfeit of Lampreys (Death of a Peer, 1941). Your enjoyment of the novel as a whole largely depends on how much you enjoy the Lamprey family; evidently, Marsh did because she couldn’t bring herself to make any of them the culprit. Catherine Aird fared much better with one of her early Inspector Sloan mysteries, which is brief and witty and almost amounts to an homage to country home mysteries, even as it honors all the rules . . . except for one.
A motley crew, to be sure . . . but they’re all innocent!
Let’s face it: we can add the servant class to the ever-growing list of GAD characters who were denigrated and maligned as “less than” worthy of playing a major role in the stories in which they appeared. And we all bought into it, didn’t we? Admit it, people: you have raised your eyebrow every time suspicion fell on a servant, and in the rare instance when that suspicion led to a final arrest, you felt . . . let down. We were all raised on the idea that the villainous valet might steal the family jewels, or the chastity of the upstairs parlor maid, but he could not be the mastermind behind three murders! He did not possess the brains – or the page time – needed to qualify. Servant killers lent a tiresome note of reality to the fairy land that classic crime inhabited. To hire a chauffeur who had spent time in jail was exotic, especially if he was trying to romance Lord Aberdeen’s youngest daughter; to find out that the Yorkshire Ripper worked in m’lud’s garage would be too banal to satisfy.
Preoccupied as they were with domestic drama, the classic setting of a mystery, the country house, was packed with family members and their peers, each of them possessing the pedigree to kill. Yet even though the best murder weekends were always well-staffed, this was no Upstairs/Downstairs: the servants were relegated to Lesser Crimes, Nosy Parkers and Second Victim. Imagine Louise Bourget actually killing her mistress; Death on the Nile would have been relegated to B- Christie! Instead, Louise knows her place as a failed blackmailer bleeding out on the cabin floor. In a late Ngaio Marsh title, Tied Up in Tinsel (1972), the author turns her servants into major characters, going so far as to make each of them a paroled murderer. Of course, it all turns out to be one big red herring, and the actual killer has the appropriate social position to qualify.
My one attempt at reading Patricia Wentworth led to villainous servants, and a disappointing read it was. I cannot remember much about the servants in Queen, Carr or Brand at all. I don’t know Carr or Queen spent little time on them because they were men uninterested in domestic life or because they were egalitarian Americans, while Brand’s lack of interest in servants deserves some study at another time. As you all know, my go-to author in these cases would be Dame Agatha. Luckily for us, a vivid cross-section of the servant class populated her work. A fair share were villainous, but these were mostly found in short stories. The rest were witnesses and victims, and you might hear them dismissed with a sniff as character “types”: the dotty old butlers, the oily manservants, the adenoidally stupid maids named Gladys.
Maids are a particularly unfortunate lot in Christie. Miss Marple made it something of a cottage industry pulling unfortunate and unwanted young women out of orphanages and training them to service. Even if they emerged hardly qualified, they had a friend forever in Miss Marple, who sent them forth into the world and watched out for them with interest and concern. She also subtly displayed a form of class disparagement as she worried most about those girls whose aims were to shoot above their “correct” station in life. Gladys Martin was too stupid and too suggestible to find a mate with the good looks of a Hollywood star, and so her passion for the mysterious “Bert” becomes something worth looking into in A Pocketful of Rye. But however much Gladys was pulled into the schemes of a truly evil man, she never loses Miss Marple’s compassion for her. The elderly sleuth exemplifies the strong attachment women could have with their servants in Christie’s world. This reaches its apotheosis in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side where Miss Marple sees to it that her beloved Cherry has the opportunity to make choices that will lead to a happier life. (Of course, in this fantasyland, Cherry decides to move herself and her husband in with Miss Marple!)
In between Rye and Mirror, Miss Marple joins forces with Lucy Eyelesbarrow to solve the murders at Rutherford Hall in 4:50 from Paddington. Lucy is an interesting case: college educated, worthy of a higher station in life, she has made the choice to become a glorified maid and has made a small fortune doing domestic work. Miss Marple never treats Lucy as she does other servants, however; in fact, she treats the work Lucy does for the Crackenthorpe’s as undercover sleuthing – which it is, but Lucy still makes herself invaluable to Emma Crackenthorpe, who begs her to stay even after the case is solved. In fact, Miss Marple goes about playing matchmaker to Lucy with men of her station, and it seems obvious by the end that Lucy will either become a member of the Crackenthorpe menage or the wife of a homicide Inspector with high antecedents. Lucy is every bit as clever as any murderer in Christie’s stable; if the killer here weren’t clearly a man, she would make a wonderful surprise villain or co-conspirator; however, it would be necessary to separate her class from her job, as Christie does here, in order to make her as “worthy” of the position of culprit as she does here of making Lucy a worthy assistant sleuth and noble wife-to-be.
Evidently, this family kept the servants locked downstairs . . .
We find but two murderous butlers in Christie, and one of them is not what he seems. The other one, Rogers in And Then There Were None, is an interesting figure. Even as suspicion narrows on him, the guests keep him hopping from meal to meal. The most recent adaptation capitalized on the idea that Rogers was the evil mastermind in his and his wife’s murder of a past employer, but this is one case where the more light-hearted Rene Clair adaptation of 1945 gets it – well, righter. Rogers is actually a very good butler, as is evidenced by his cool demeanor in the face of tragedy and his ability to set cold tongue on the table even as folks are murdered right and left because . . . one must keep up one’s strength.
In her travel mysteries, Christie by and large replaced the servants with foreigners. As Poirot made his way around the world, proving that death follows the best of sleuths even while on vacation, he would ultimately draw a circle around those who were British, upper/middle class, and white. Mention would be made in passing a family of Italians, or a French maman and her brood, who merely provided travel color. Signor Richetti is the only non-English voyager on the S.S. Karnak in Death on the Nile; despite the ultimate unveiling of a motive, he is a minor character and is never taken seriously as the murderer. Father Lavigny, in Murder in Mesopotamia, is a more crucial character there, but like the servants in a country house, his crimes are secondary to the main action. I mentioned before that Louise Bourget gets killed on the Nile; so, too does Victoria, the hotel maid in A Caribbean Mystery and one of only two Caribbean natives to figure in the story. Senora de Caspearo, a South American tourist, is another minor character whose only purpose is to spout some words that remind Miss Marple of a vital clue, and this is because the elderly sleuth is able to translate the lady’s superstitious twaddle into biological fact.
I don’t want to harbor too much resentment toward Christie for failure to include significant characters of color or from foreign lands. Well-traveled though she was, Christie took advantage of the amenities of life in the colonies, and when she worked on Max’s digs, she admired the hard-working natives but didn’t mingle with them socially. Her attempts at creating fully-fleshed foreign characters were mixed: Dr. Tanios in Dumb Witness is one of her best foreigners because Christie uses him to feed upon the British reader’s antipathy for swarthy Greek men and turns it against them. Her multi-national characters in Orient Express serve a larger purpose, so while the taste we get of each of them is initially pretty stereotypical, that ends up being the point. Still, to be honest, while many folks complained about the changes in nationality in Kenneth Branagh’s recent adaptation, it was actually quite refreshing to be spared the swarthy Italian and timid Swede. The boarding house for students in the later novel Hickory Dickory Dock should have been a great starting off point for a more modern attitude by Christie of an international menage; instead, it is a breeding ground for embarrassing parodies of third world people.
To a degree, Christie was at her most egalitarian in her village mysteries, where the relationship between nobleman and tradesman, spinster and servant, were more symbiotic than in a large household, and these relationships were both richly chronicled and mined for plot devices. There’s a whole network of maids in The Moving Finger, and they know their families well enough to prove more than helpful in solving the case. Gladys Martin, in A Pocketful of Rye, reminds us that servants get days off and are capable of getting into mischief on them. But then the whole staff of that novel turns out to be off-kilter and interesting, to the point that we can’t quite exclude all of them from our list.
Still, every time we are told about a surly garage mechanic, or a local poacher, or sultry parlor maid involved with a young gentleman, I’ll bet that most of us never add such characters to our list of possibles. We have been too well-trained in how the web of suspicion works. Barring the short stories, where Christie was more than happy to add dressmakers and laundresses and overly helpful servants to her list of villains, the closed circle functioned as an exclusive club where no one might have wanted to be a member, but exclusivity was still the rule of the day. Believe me, if the characters themselves had had their way, they would have been more than happy to include the servants. Think of the myriad of times they tried to foist the blame on the footman or the tweeny. But the author usually would have none of that! Until the end of the war and the rapid unshuffling of the British caste system, the classic crime author kept his closed circles as pristine as possible.
Thank God we now live in a world where all people, regardless of race, creed, class, or circumstance, can be a cold-blooded killer! Vive le changement!
14 thoughts on “RICH MAN/POOR MAN/BEGGAR MAN/THIEF: Only One Can Crack the Closed Circle”
There is also Dr. Bessner in Death on the Nile, and he does have a bigger role than Richetti. But of course he is clearly middle European and closer to Christie’s England then any Egypts. And almost every suspect in Murder on the Links, including the killer, is from France.
Spoilers for several Christie works follow:
In Secret of Chimneys, a member of the staff is the killer and in Mystery of the Blue Train an accomplice. And I’m aware that there are slight differences. They aren’t really staff members but are disguised as such. Still, we as the audience only meet them in their role. And one could argue to which class the murderer in After the Funeral belongs.
I haven’t read many of her short storys for a very long time, so I may very well mix the plot up with some of the Suchet episodes. But I think in the Adventure of the Italian nobleman, the butler did it. And Plymouth express is the Blue Train solution without any disguise, if I remember, correctly.
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It was stupid of me to forget Bessner, although he is essentially motiveless in the novel (and is given a silly motive in the first film). He does provide a lovely punchline to a romantic subplot, though. And he’s a good doctor, not a murderer or a victim! And yes, Murder on the Links is set in France, so a lot of the folks will be . . . French. The most French of them all is Giraud!
The murderer in Chimneys is certainly disguised as a servant, but I hate that book and didn’t want to talk about it. (Oops, I’m sounding like a petulant child, but there’s a cat lying on my hand and it’s making me type grouchily.) And yes, “Plymouth Express” represents one of the many short stories where a servant is responsible, and that same servant assists the killer in Blue Train. There are lots more servant criminals in Miss Marple stories.
As for Funeral, which is my favorite Christie, we certainly could talk about the position of the killer. Certainly the killer themselves talks about their position. But they occupy a rare position, along with nannies, that made me separate them from the field for this discussion. But I will talk about that book with anyone, anytime!
Hehe. I sort of share your opinion about Chimney’s. Hate is a strong word, but I certainly have no love for that book.
I suppose the pretty important servant characters in Orient Express could also count as a special case. As you said with it’s international characters, it’s the point of it. And no matter how crucial for the servants may be, if you think about Orient Express, they are not the first characters that pop in someones mind. Just as Mr and Mrs Rogers aren’t the first ones you think about in And then there were None, even though they might be theoretically as important as Miss Brent or the General.
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Servants were important in the origins of the detective story, though – most notably in The Moonstone, where the steward – a variety of butler – is a narrator and another servant has a prominent role.
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Sure! And isn’t a servant of sorts significant in Hound of the Baskervilles? I’m not saying that servants weren’t important! If you strip Christie of the servant class, you lose dozens of great characters and a whole lot of good reading. This post was meant to be tongue in cheek, but as it turns out, most of the authors of that tiny strip of time known as the Golden Age heeded Van Dine’s commandment.
“I was cast in college as Watkins, the manservant to the Raja of Rukh in William Archer’s 1921 melodrama, The Green Goddess”
You were in college in 1921?! You are looking fabulous for your age, sir!!
I’m okay with butlers being killers, in the same way that I’m okay with love interests be killers, because there’s a chance that the game played to get to that point is being played against not just the reader but also all the other reading that reader may have done in the genre. Golden Age detective novels seem to be the one borderline-meta genre that acknowledges its own presence by more than just having a character saying “Good heavens, it’s like we’re in a novel!” — a huge number of books in GAD were written with the awareness that a similarly huge number of books had been written in a similar idiom, and that the game was as much against them as it was the reader.
But, then, I’m a huge Carr fan, against whom it would be thoroughly valid to raise the accusation that some of the killers in his plots are barely on the page at all…so if it’s a matter of “presence” in the plot or assumed insignificance, well, hey, I’m okay with that, too. Your point about the “menials” committing a murder “with their decreased moral fiber and desperate need for money and independence, why wouldn’t they murder their employers in their beds?!?” is an excellent one, and I’ll doubtless quote it in future, but as much as I love seeing whatever servant-avatars each novel contains being rules out, I’d consider it perfectly within the realm of foxing preconceptions to have a mere lackey kill their employer and three of his golfing chums. Hell, with the current modern feeling towards the wealthy, that may be where the next huge-selling crime fiction idea lays…
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Okay, this reply is full of SPOILERS so everybody forgive me in advance . . . .
If the servant characters are presented in an equally compelling way, then I say, “Hurrah! You go and kill your masters – I’m not stopping you!” I differ from you in my opinion about a murderer being the witness who appeared on page 37 and then vanished from the scene. “Fairness” aside – because I’m sure in most cases the explanation is perfectly fair – I want the killer to be someone who has been on my mind in some fashion through much of the novel.
The servant/foreigner question is different. I think we’ve all been indoctrinated into thinking that the choice of a maid or a mysterious Levantine as the killer is substandard. But I agree with your excellent point: those of us who read a lot of mysteries are applying our whole experience as readers to each book as much if not more than we apply the “rules” and somebody who plays with the idea of the trusted narrator or the stalwart valet – if they do it WELL – earns my undying respect.
It makes me look at Christie’s Three Act Tragedy anew: it was written in 1935, late enough I guess that Christie could make fun of the tropes (although Rinehart is given credit for the phrase “the butler did it beginning in 1930.) Given the theatricality of the characters and the plot, it makes sense that the killer would use the creaky old butler idea – and that his witnesses would fall for it!
I think servant killers become more valid if the servants are presented as whole characters. Given the modern day preponderance of “upstairs/downstairs” stories, there are now many beloved servant characters for whom we would feel great sorrow or joy if they landed on the dock. The late, great Robert Altman put as much focus on his servants as his gentry in Gosford Park, with brilliant results that belie this article completely!
Another point that was made by someone here has to do with who we count as a servant. Why are butlers and maids not taken seriously as suspects, but housekeepers and companions are? What about nursemaids and nannies? Bette Davis played a murderous nanny to perfection! Most literary nannies end up lying on the kitchen floor after ingesting poison cocoa.
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In the case of companions I suspect it is because they are often of the same social class as the rest of the cast but are impoverished (usually through no fault of their own). The same is sometimes true of housekeepers, as they are often nieces, unmarried sisters or widowed relatives. I wonder whether the GAD authors basically thought it was tacky to have servants being the criminals. It may also be that having a convincing motive for murder without being too sordid militated against servants being killers.
On the prominence issue, for me Carr (at least in the books I have read) falls on the right side of hidden in plain sight.
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When Carr hits the mark with his killer, nobody does it better. But secondary characters don’t work for me because I’m not as enamored of murder methods as JJ; I need a good “who” to satisfy me. Christie never let me down there. Even in her lesser efforts there was a sense of rightness – what Scott refers to as “inevitability” – to her solutions. It’s one of the reasons Sophie Hannah’s continuation novels drive me crazy: I never feel that with her plots.
Your point about companions and class are well taken. The books are teeming with resentful gentlewomen brought down by ill-fortune. I think Christie, like others, was a stickler for class. When Mary Gerrard rises above her station in Sad Cypress it angers both the upper and lower class characters. But she also had sympathy for these women: the scene in the tea shop between Miss Marple and Dora Bunner in A Murder Is Announced is brimming with pathos.
The one thing that stuck in my mind regarding the treatment of servants is the comment that ‘nobody really looks at a servant as a person’, which is an esential point in both ‘Three act tragedy’ and ‘Miss Marple tells a story’, amongst others…
Yes, Father Brown would approve of this. Poirot dealt with it in The Big Four as well, as did Tommy and Tuppence in Partners in Crime. You can find examples throughout GAD stories of the invisible servant.
It may be true that servants are denigrated as a class in Golden Age detective fiction, but I think it’s important to conflate that notion with the “no one notices a servant” concept which is all too often attributed to class snobbery. In truth, the tendency to overlook or not remember servants— a real and common tendency even among people who themselves are working class— is based on a psychological principle totally unrelated to class snobbery, but rather based in the fact that all entities are least conspicuous where they seem to belong. That is, people functioning as servants are less likely to be noticed or remembered not because they are considered less important as human beings, but rather that, in fulfilling their function as servants, they become less contextually more congruous— in the same way that an automobile is far more likely to be overlooked on a street than in the middle of a swimming pool.
Servants may have rarely been culprits in mystery novels, but they have a higher record in cinema mysteries. One actor whose whodunit-culprit percentage record is rather high (a good deal higher than Ralph Morgan’s, in fact— whose culprit-to-innocent-suspect ratio in mysteries is actually rather low and vastly overrated, despite having appeared a few highly celebrated examples) appeared as the surprise killer three times in as many consecutive years, and in two of those three he played the butler. And in another whodunit a few years earlier, in which this actor played “supplementary victim,” the culprit again was the butler (in semi-collaboration with the maid— it’s complicated).
Aaaagh! I meant it’s important NOT to conflate those two notions!!! I just wrote the exact opposite of what I meant!!!
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