May 26, 2012

The Pope's butler has been arrested!

"His job included handing out rosaries to dignitaries and riding in the front seat of the 'Popemobile,' a vehicle used for public papal appearances..."

Did you just get a Mardi Gras image from that job description, like I did? Picturing the Popemobile, with the butler tossing out rosaries?

Anyway, the butler, Paolo Gabriele, 46, is one of the few individuals who has access to the Pope's desk, and there have been leaks of "hundreds of personal letters and confidential documents" to a journalist who published them in a book called "His Holiness."

It seems absurd that the butler did it. Here's a Straight Dope inquiry into the old phrase, supposedly based on hackneyed mystery novel plots.

The expression "the butler did it" is commonly attributed to novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), who wrote dozens of popular books, starting with The Circular Staircase in 1908. In 1930 she published The Door, in which — I'm sorry if this ruins the suspense for you — the butler does it. But the words "the butler did it" do not appear in the book, as far as I can tell — I confess I skimmed — and Rinehart was hardly the first crime writer to implicate a menial...

[C]rime-fiction writers of the day tended to think that casting one of the hired help as the culprit was cheating. (That is, it was only OK for the butler to be suspected of doing it.) In his 1928 essay "Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories" (the source of rule number seven above — you thought I was making this up?), S.S. Van Dine spells this out in rule eleven: "A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion." Noting the blithe classism in this suggestion, we return to the Oxford Companion: "Because the butler can move about the house in the course of his duties with complete freedom and because he is so taken for granted by the other characters that no one pays attention to him, he makes an ideal culprit."

You see the divide here. Too easy! say fans of the ten-people-in-a-country-house subgenre. Perfect! say slightly more adventurous writers, and indeed, having the butler do it seems like a great opportunity to inject the resentments of the proletariat into the genteel world of Hercule Poirot and his ilk. 
You hear that? It's too easy.  Look for a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion. Hmmm.

26 comments:

Mitchell said...

At the very end of this story, the Pope's butler will wake up to find it was all a dream.

Bender said...

Did you just get a Mardi Gras image from that job description, like I did?

Part of that description by CNN is complete ignorance on the part of MSM "reporters" and part of it is intentional mockery by said reporters to make the Pope, Church, etc. look silly.

deborah said...

"Did you just get a Mardi Gras image from that job description, like I did? Picturing the Popemobile, with the butler tossing out rosaries?"

No. I was raised Catholic and I saw the 'and' in the quote.

edutcher said...

My Aunt Mary was a big Rinehart fan.

And, I'd guess the butler always did it, either because he was one of the lower classes and couldn't stop his baser impulse or because of some Magic Negro thing that he did in the rotter because, he couldn't abide Lady Ann of Althouse being abused in that manner one second longer.

And I didn't get the image until it was planted in my brain.

jimbino said...

Of course nowadays you can get your butler fingerprinted, RFID chipped and filmed all day by security cameras.

jimbino said...

Too bad all those priests following the RC's "No Child's Behind Left" policy can't blame the butler!

Mr. Forward said...

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by bad poetry...

rhhardin said...

P.G.Wodehouse The Butler Did It is where I first saw it, on our bookshelf.

Paul Zrimsek said...

I suggest it was Cardinal Mustard, in the Sistine Chapel, with a censer.

Rob said...

The mental image I prefer is the Pope as Inspector Clouseau and the butler as Cato Fong, lying in wait for the Pope and jumping out from behind curtains to attack him in order for the Pope to keep his martial arts skills well honed.

Irene said...

I would be fascinated to learn more about the Vatican's criminal code. How often does the Vatican process criminal cases?

How severe are the penalties?

"Nuzzi would not confirm the identity of his sources, but he told CNN that his primary source, who he referred to as 'Maria' in his book, 'risked life and limb' if ever found out."

Gosh, that makes it sound as though the Inquisition were still operative.

X said...

An interesting story is the founding of Rice University. Turns out in that case the butler did it, before any of the Straight Dope fiction examples, along with the lawyer, and the case was cracked by Capt. James Baker, the grandfather of Secretary of State James Baker III.

MadisonMan said...

Gosh, that makes it sound as though the Inquisition were still operative.

Wow, I wasn't expecting that!

MadisonMan said...

...and I've read a couple Rinehart mysteries. My recollection is that the person who did it was always revealed to be insane, but very adept at masking it.

Simon said...

People better-advised than me--Vatican chroniclers like Sandro Magister and John Allen--have expressed skepticism. Maybe the butler did it, or maybe "the butler did it" is covering up "the cardinal did it." I suppose we'll find out in due course. The Roman Curia is in need of reform; I don't expect it to be done by Benedict, who I tend to think sees himself more as a teacher than a governor, but his successor will have to make it a priority.

Irene, typically they are handed over to Italy to be dealt with--the woman who tackled the Holy Father a couple of Christmases back, for instance.

Darrell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Darrell said...

Ann, your snark about Mardi Gras beads is beneath you. Really. Some of us take the Rosary seriously, and you know that.

Marc said...

Simon at 6:02pm, The Vatican City State prosecutor-- whose name escapes me, just now-- is handling this case. The link is to a description of the judicial office of the VCS, http://bit.ly/Kub94b.

(My understanding is that if Sig. Gabriele is convicted and sentenced to a term of years in prison, that penalty will have to be served in an Italian prison, since there is none in the Vatican.)

Marc said...

On the other hand, Elisabetta Macrina (an advocate 'admitted to the bar' of the Tribunal of the SCV) is talking here, http://bit.ly/KsEEmm, about the potential penalties-- loss of job, loss of his residency and privileges. I have no idea what other penalties attach to the crime of "aggravated theft by the illicit possession of reserved documents" in the SCV penal code but I would suppose that if prison were one of them, she'd have mentioned that.

I daresay that most of what has been repeated in the media in the last couple of days is... nonsense.

Marc said...

Prof Nicola Picardi is the promotore di giustizia i.e. the prosecutor. http://bit.ly/LSlJpd. [Don't ask me to explain the 'summary instructory' phase, now followed by the 'formal instructory' phase under Prof Antonio Bonnet-- no idea.] But P Lombardi SJ's statement confirms that the process is happening under SCV law, not Italy's.

wyo sis said...

Nothing from Crack. No Catholic rants?

Bill said...

Connie Willis, in To Say Nothing of the Dog, on the origin of the 'butler did it' trope:

“Of course [Victorian mystery novels are] usually about murder, not robbery, but they always take place in a country house like this, and the butler did it, at least for the first hundred mystery novels or so. Everyone’s a suspect, and it’s always the least likely person, and after the first hundred or so, the butler wasn’t anymore–the least likely person, I mean–so they had to switch to unlikely criminals. You know, the harmless old lady or the vicar’s devoted wife, that sort of thing, but it didn’t take the reader long to catch on to that, and they had to resort to having the detective be the murderer, and the narrator, even though that had already been done in The Moonstone. The hero did it, only he didn’t know it. He was sleepwalking, in his nightshirt, which was rather racy stuff for Victorian times, and the crime was always unbelievably complicated. In mystery novels. I mean, nobody ever ever just grabs the vase and runs, or shoots somebody in a fit of temper, and at the very end, when you think you’ve got it all figured out, there’s one last plot-twist, ...”

Marc said...

As I look into the Italian sites, it seems to be the case that in criminal cases, if there is no specific provision in SCV law re the delict, then the applicable Italian law is used by the SCV courts. Which appears to be the case in this matter. Hence a possibility of 30 years' sentence (because the crime is a species of lèse majesté, committed against the head of state)is bruited about. Pft. Murderers and other violent felons don't get 30 years.

And that is my last ramble about that subject: sorry! because it and the earlier ones were only tangentially pertinent.

Fr Ronald Knox's 'Decalogue' is of some interest, however http://bit.ly/KU2me0 -- the subject of 'rules for detective fiction' was perhaps a trope, a commonplace, in the literary media in the late 20s?

Alan said...

Someone should write a murder mystery set at a butlers' convention.

Rick Lee said...

Oh, that guy... here's a picture of his ear. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-A9ljQUHY9xM/TrmmHfcIQlI/AAAAAAAAGNM/Nm0oekcvNKU/s1600/LEE_8118a-lores.jpg
I'm sure I have a better one somewhere but I can't find it right now.

Rick Lee said...

Crap... I keep forgetting that Blogger doesn't automatically make that a link.