Mysterious Doings: Who Didn’t do it?

*Spoiler alert. This post reveals antagonists in a few classic mystery novels. The books are still worth reading even if you know who did it, though. Proceed at your own risk.

Formula is a dirty word for some writers and readers when used in regard to a pattern a book follows. Most genres have some kind of formula, some more rigid than others. For me a genre formula is basically a recipe—something you can always play around with but is there because it works. I’ve learned a lot about genres, sub-genres, emphasis, climbing action, red herrings, etc—things I hope to cover in future posts—as I’ve worked on my current series, but today I want to talk about the fascinating discovery I made about who didn’t do it.

For starters, the butler rarely does it. In fact, I can count on one hand the novels I’m aware of that where the butler is the guilty party: “The Musgrave Ritual” from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle (1897), “The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner” by Herbert Jenkins (1921), and “The Door” by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1930). The cliché “The butler did it” is usually attributed to Rinehart due to the fact that she wrote her killing-butler book after a 1928 essay by S.S. Van Dine “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” where he included, as rule eleven, that it was bad form to pin murder on a servant. That Rinehart flaunted her superiority in the genre by breaking Van Dine’s rule is a reflection of the power position she held at the time. It’s interesting to note that the words “The butler did it” do not appear in her book—or any of the other books who feature the manservant as a malicious murderer. Having the butler be the bad guy hasn’t really been done since Rinehart’s book (though a clever enough author might choose it now that it’s considered impossible to pull off :0)

So, why didn’t the butler do it? I have a few theories. One, that authors are terrified of appearing cliché even though it’s not really cliché and, ironically, it might be the least used twist out there (how many times is it the ex-spouse or the jealous lover? Talk about cliché). The second reason it’s not the butler is, in my opinion, that writers agree with Van Dine. Life as a servant is hard enough without also being a murderer (though we suspect servants in epidemic proportion and have no problem killing them off or finding out they were selling off the family silver—the scamps!) The third reason not to pin it on Jeeves, and I think the most admirable one, is because having the butler do it is too easy. Think about it, a butler has access to an entire house, usually works for the same family for decades, rarely gets a day off, serves many a meal and tea tray, knows all the family secrets, and is usually the one servant in the house with keys to everything. Having him be the one who sneaks cyanide into the mistress’ clotted cream is rather simplistic. The whole point of a mystery novel is to weave something ALMOST unbelievable and the butler is, sadly, just too easy to pin it on; motive and opportunity are part of the job description.

Okay, so it wasn’t the butler, who else wasn’t it? I was recently having this discussion with Annette Lyon and she told me about how one of her children enjoyed syndicated episodes of Star Trek the New Generation and one day told her mom that she knew how to figured out who the bad guy was. Annette asked her the secret and she said “ Well, it’s not the black guy, or the girl, or the alien who’s been treated bad by everyone else”. Instead, it was the average human guy nearly every time. Keep in mind that New Generation was produced in the late 80′s and early 90’s, a hot bed for political correctness. I found it rather genius that this child figured that out (though she is her mother’s daughter so I shouldn’t be too surprised). After having this child’s opinion to support my own, I researched this theory out a little and wouldn’t you know it but mystery authors have been doing the same thing those Star Trek writers were dong. Very few minority characters are also hiding syringes in the sleeve of their trench coat. Women are becoming more common, but the killer will still be a man most of the time. Usually not a very rich or very poor man–they are both too easy to villianize–just an average Joe.

At this point you’re listing in your head a dozen books you’ve read where it was the Middle Eastern sheik’s daughter or the Hispanic milk delivery boy—I’m not proposing this reverse prejudice as a rule of thumb, just an interesting observation about trends, and perhaps social influences, of who the modern bad guy is in a mystery novel.

I also believe we’ve reached a point in our social evolution to spread the love, or, well, vengeance, around a little. I don’t think having a Jamaican killer makes the author prejudice, anymore than having a wealthy republican do a little ligature on the side makes the writer of that villain a liberal. I think there’s room for everyone in the penitentiary.

What I see happening right now, however, is that the tables are beginning to turn—I’m certainly not the first person who’s made this discovery—and in coming years I think we’ll see a lot more angry women and psychotic immigrants. Average Joe may very well get the reprieve he’s earned. I don’t see the formula of a mystery novel changing all that much, the basics have been around for a long time because they work so well, but I think the killers will become more varied and, hopefully, harder to pick out of a line up.



About Josi Kilpack

Born in raised in Salt Lake City, Utah, I'm the third of nine children and the mother of four kids of my own. I've written 13 novels, most of them directed to the LDS market, and also write articles, short stories, and do freelance editing. I've been involved with LDStorymakers, a guild for LDS writers, since it's inception ten years ago and am currently the president of The Whitney Awards, a genre award program for LDS writers. I live in Willard Utah with my husband, kids, dog, and chickens.
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7 Responses to Mysterious Doings: Who Didn’t do it?

  1. Great post, Josi! I loved your line about “there’s room for everyone in the penitentiary.” The last thing a mystery writer wants is for readers to go reading “meaning” into the villain’s ethnicity/gender/financial status/religion or lack of religion, etc. Characters, like real people, are individuals, not representatives of anything. It would be very frustrating, constricting, and unrealistic if the only villains we’re allowed are Star Trek’s Average Joes, lest someone think we’re exposing a prejudice or trying to make a statement.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    What’s really interesting, my view, is the patterns you can sometimes detect in a particular author, series, or TV show (such as Star Trek TNG). Part of the fun of Columbo was that the villain was always someone rich, smart, and handsome/pretty — in contrast with Columbo himself, of course. Of course, as I recall, they always cued you in about the murderer’s identity right at the start…

    The one trend I would guess is nearly universally true is that fictional murderers are more interesting than real-life murderers. I suspect that most real-life murders would make for very boring books…

  3. Scott Hales says:

    I always like to joke around that you can always tell who the bad guys are in Mormon historical fiction by their bad grammar and facial hair. (They also always refer to Joseph Smith as Joe Smith.) Also, my wife has pointed out that in the illustrated Book of Mormon reader all of the bad guys wear hats. It’s true, mostly, except for King Noah. But he has facial hair.

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    I SWEAR I read this somewhere, but I’ve googled and googled and googled, and I can’t remember who said it. I think it was a black actor who said, paraphrasing: “Racial equality in Hollywood will be achieved when a black man can play the villain, not the hero.”

    Darn my google-fu. Or lack thereof.

  5. Excellent post, as always, Josi.

  6. C. M. Malm says:

    Scott, one of the things that has given me some hope for the future of church-made films is that, in the Joseph Smith movie shown in Nauvoo, Joseph (logically!) has a beard during the Liberty Jail sequence.

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