The ex­tra­or­di­nary life of Amer­ica’s, and Pitts­burgh’s, Aga­tha Chris­tie

Edward Settle
Edward Settle

PITTSBURGH — It’s not always easy to pinpoint the origin of a cliché, but many of them come from literary fiction. In particular, what we call “genre fiction” — mysteries, crime thrillers and whodunits — has contributed so many of the common phrases in our lexicon.

Take, for example, “the butler did it.” It’s a great phrase that does a lot of work in a very little amount of space. It evokes the image of a tired and overburdened attendant, angry at his employers for some slight or an accumulation of them, ready to kill with discretion while maintaining the practiced, chilly demeanor that comes with his station.

It’s also, it turns out, a phrase with Pittsburgh origins.

Mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart is an extraordinary woman of Western Pennsylvania, one we should celebrate along with environmentalist Rachel Carson, journalist Nellie Bly and painter Mary Cassatt. Rinehart was one of the first female World War I correspondents to travel to the front lines, where she was able to tell the stories of soldiers first-hand. Before and after the war, she wrote hundreds of short stories and essays alongside dozens of mystery novels, which earned her the moniker, “America’s Agatha Christie.”

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She’s also credited with inventing the plot device, if not the phrase, “the butler did it.” She was a literary star, and Pittsburgh doesn’t remember her nearly enough.

Rinehart was born in Allegheny City in 1876. At the age of 20, she graduated from the Pittsburgh Training School For Nurses, and subsequently married a local doctor, settling to raise her children in town. But during the stock market crash of 1903, the Rinehart family lost all their savings, finding themselves destitute despite their medical training.

The 27-year-old mother of three decided to support her family with her hobby: telling thrilling stories. She quickly wrote and placed over forty stories in magazines around the country. In 1908, she released her hit novel “The Circular Staircase,” which eventually sold over a million copies. She’d finally cashed in on her talent, and within five years, the Rineharts went from being broke on the northern shore of the Three Rivers to thriving in the borough of Glen Osborne, just south of Sewickley. Now she had plenty of domestic help — including a few butlers.

But she left this comfort to write from Europe for the Saturday Evening Post during the First World War, where she conducted interviews with royalty as well as the everyday men of the front lines. This brought her work, and her passion for justice to national and international audiences, as her essays were later published by the London Times. Still — no matter how serious some of her writing got, Rinehart always returned to her first love, thrilling mysteries.

“The Door,” published in 1930, introduced the trope that “the butler did it.” In the novel, the butler actually murders an elderly family nurse and his crime is not confirmed or fully revealed until the ending. Although that exact phrase does not appear in the work, reviews and discussion of “The Door” brought it to life.

Hers wasn’t the first murdering butler, I’m sure — and she certainly didn’t invent the class tensions, bubbling over in an era of social and political foment, that fueled suspicions of all servants. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle famously had a butler suspect, but not killer.) But her brutal butler became the prototype for all future murderous manservants.

For anyone wanting to read more on Rinehart, I highly recommend “Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart” by Jan Cohn (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005). Mary Roberts Rinehart, the Queen of Mystery, is an important part of Pittsburgh literary history, and an important figure in the tropes of the genre. She led an extraordinary life, and one that was not without its ironies.

When she was in her 70S, in 1947, Rinehart retired to live a life of peace on a large estate. During a complicated employment dispute, she was attacked by her chef of 25 years in a tragic and drunken rage, as she was coping with both cancer and the loss of her husband. As the harrowing ordeal unfolded, her chef chased her throughout her home with a knife after his pistol misfired. She screamed at anyone around for help.

Who was it who called the police, helping to save her life?

Why — the butler did it.

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