“The butler did it” is code for a murder mystery with an obvious answer, and it’s rarely seen because it’s too obvious. Author Mary Roberts Rinehart popularized the phrase (and ending), but that’s not all she’s known for. In an era where women were often limited, she did a little bit of everything and narrowly escaped a death torn right from the pages of her own detective stories.
Mary began studying nursing as a teenager and treated factory workers. In the Victorian era, worker rights and safety rules were virtually non-existent, so Mary witnessed some horrific injuries. While working at a Pittsburgh hospital, she met Dr. Stanley Rinehart. Against hospital rules, they began courting and eventually married in 1896, one year after Mary’s father took his own life.
Mary’s writing career begins
In 1903, the stock market crashed, and the young people lost all their savings. While her husband made house calls, Mary began writing. She churned out 45 short stories and in 1908, she composed the novel that would make her famous. Named The Circular Staircase, the story follows a spinster and her niece and nephew who rent a country house. Crimes abound, and the three help solve them. This book originated the “Had-I-But-Known” style, which is when the main character (in first person and usually a woman) drops some tantalizing foreshadowing to let the reader know something big is coming up. The Circular Staircase would eventually sell over 1 million copies.
During WWI, Mary took on a different role and wrote as a war correspondent. She interviewed major figures like WInston Churchill. In 1922, the family moved to Washington D.C, where Mary continued her detective-story writing. She would begin her day with breakfast (in bed) and write from 10am to 3pm. When she wasn’t working, she loved mountain-climbing, fishing, and horseback-riding.
The Door and later years
In 1930, Mary released her novel The Door and while “the butler did it” doesn’t actually appear verbatim in the text, the book is the best-known example of the phrase. It’s considered cliche today, but even in Mary’s day, having a servant commit the murder was considered by some to be “too easy” of an answer. Just two years before The Door’s publication, a critic advised writers against pining a crime on a butler or any other servant. While the reveal may have hurt other authors, Mary was so popular by this time that readers didn’t care. It was a big hit and helped Mary’s sons, too, who released the book under their new publishing house.
Mary continued to write novels like The Doctor (1936) and The Wall (1938). In 1947, she went public with the fact she had undergone a radical mastectomy. It wasn’t considered appropriate to talk about breast cancer at the time, which makes her interview in the 1947 “Ladies’ Home Journal” so significant. Mary urged readers to get examinations. That same year, life imitated art when a chef who had worked for Mary for 25 years tried to kill her. After the gun misfired, he tried to attack her with a knife. Mary ran and was saved by her driver. The chef hung himself in jail.
In 1958, Mary passed away peacefully at her home. Since 1906, she’d published either a play, novel, or non-fiction work every year, leaving behind a huge volume of work that critics and readers loved. While she isn’t as well-known today, she is called the “American Agatha Christie” by die-hard fans. You should definitely find a copy of one of her many books (though probably not The Door, since the ending has been spoiled) if you love a good ol’ fashioned whodunnit.
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