Here’s another story from the archives, this time solved by the nameless policeman narrator, with a cameo by a series sleuth of mine, Geoffrey Lord. I hope you enjoy it.
“The Butler Did It!”
It was just about last year at this time—September, right before summer officially ends—that I was sitting in my office, with scarcely a care in the world (so it always seems in retrospect), when Jack McDonald walked in and spat out, “Murder. Real bad, real confusing, real—”
“Well, that’s they pay us for, right, Jack?”
“But—! Perhaps I’m just not makin’ myself clear, sir.” McDonald’s a good guy, and a good cop, but he’s got an awful habit of never saying what he means.
“OK,” I said, “begin at the beginning. Call just came in?”
“Right.” It looked like he was about to break out in a cold sweat. “And you’re gonna either laugh like a hyena or blanch like a ghost.”
“Murder. The first responders are there now. Now, it seems the guy left a clue to the killer. He said, ‘The butler did it!’”
I stared at him like he was nuts; and, when I saw he was serious, I thought I was going to start laughing hysterically. “The butler did it!” Gee, I didn’t think even the most traditional detective stories used that old cliché anymore.
“That’s not the funny part, sir.”
I looked at him straight in the eye. “OK?”
“We just got the call in, like I said. You know where they were calling from—where he was killed? The victim whose dying clue was ‘the butler did it,’” said Sgt. John McDonald, speaking calmly to his superior officer, “was a butler, killed at a butlers’ convention.”
We do not joke about a murder case, just as a matter of course. God! murder is a serious business, mister, a crime and a sin; a human life has been taken. And yet I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that we were cracking up the whole way to the butlers’ convention. Let’s get a few things straight: I’ve been working for the NYPD for about 30 years—enough time to be made a lieutenant, to have gotten a chance to see just about everything a guy can see in this job—and I’ve never heard of anything as screwy as this. A butlers’ convention? Heck, are there even any butlers still around nowadays?
Apparently there are, to answer my own question, enough to organize a convention once a year at the Waldorf Astoria. The Noble Union of Butlers, Valets, and General Factotums—I’m serious; they’ve unionized—hosts it, a party for the few butlers left in New York, and guess who “buttles” it? That’s right—the butlers’ butlers! Those strapping, up-and-coming lads who want to be butlers—yeah, like they’re in abundance—train for the job by buttling the butlers’ convention. As I say—screwiest thing I’ve ever heard. The Waldorf, when McDonald and I arrived, was stuffed to the brim with a bunch of the human-sized penguins, tailored butler-outfits, hair parted crisply in the middle like Jeeves-substitutes, just about every shape and size you can think of. There were tall butlers, short butlers, thin butlers, fat butlers, butlers who looked drunk, drunks who looked like butlers, butlers who looked like they weren’t actually butlers but wealthy college kids on a sociology experiment, even female butlers (never let it be said that butlers oppose your run-of-the-mill “gender equality”). I see police uniforms every day; I get sick and tired of seeing police uniforms; and let me tell you that after all the black-and-white I was more relieved at seeing a blue police uniform at that moment than seeing a million dollars fall out of the sky or the Lord Himself start speaking to Moses.
“OK, Schwartz,” I told the uniformed man, “what’s up?”
Schwartz saw me and broke out in laughter too. You’ve got to forgive us, but sending cops to butlers’ conventions tends to do that.
“OK,” I growled, “now that we’ve got that out of the way, what’s the story? And have you kept the newspapers away? Answer the more important question first—that’s the second one.”
“Newspapers OK so far,” Schwartz responded, exorcising himself of the giggles. “Our victim is one Giles A. Benson, according to the driver’s license in his pocket.”
“Been able to find family, next-of-kin, anything?”
“Still searching, sir.”
“OK, keep on it. CSI team here yet?”
“Just finished up in here.”
I was trying to keep my dignity, so I glanced at the corpse. His hair was parted on the left side, his red, fat face was all puffed-up like he hadn’t been breathing (well, he wasn’t now), his body was paunchy and well fed (there’s a nice euphemism for you). But that wasn’t the stupid thing. He was wearing a far-too-small butler’s outfit and looked absolutely hilarious in it.
Schwartz laughed again. “Pretty silly, ain’t it? How the heck does life throw this stuff at us?”
“Cause of death?”
“Strangulation, as you can see. Probably with a cord or something.”
I said, “Who found the body?”
“The president of the butlers’ union—hey, you can’t blame me for laughing if you’re doing it too, chief!—a guy named William Hemming.”
Hemming was tall and lean, with gray eyes and graying hair. He looked a bit like an overgrown scarecrow, though without the gawkiness.
“OK, let’s talk turkey,” I said, trying to sound like a movie cop—hey, sometimes it works with ’em! “Your name Hemming?”
A distinguished, patrician voice—not English, per se, but that kind of old-time American accent you hear in movies.
“Well, what happened, Mr. Hemming?”
“Hmm,” Hemming said. (I wouldn’t be surprised if he started every sentence with “hmm” and ending it with “sir.”) “It was most unfortunate, Inspector—quite unsuspected. Why anyone should wish to strangle poor Mr. Benson is beyond me.”
“Uh-huh.” Well, I knew this guy wouldn’t get me anywhere faster. Then something dawned on me. “Wait a sec, Hemming. I never said anything about Benson’s being strangled.”
You know, in detective stories, the criminal turns red in the face at a mistake like this and admits the whole crime. “Where were you when Joe was killed?” “In the bar when he was shot, Inspector.” “I never said he was shot!” By the way, it’s a horrible clue. If you ever write a detective story, don’t use it. Nor is it true to life, as I know now from experience. Either Hemming was not a criminal, or he just plain thought I was stupid. Or both.
He said, in words, “Inspector, I believe you know already that I discovered the body.” He said, in implications, “Give me credit for having a brain, mister.”
“Right,” I said winningly, trying (and failing) not to show that I was riled in any way. “So—tell us about this Benson. His likes, dislikes, etc.?”
“Hmm,” Hemming said again. I already realized I couldn’t stand Hemming. “Unfortunately, Inspector, there’s very little that I can tell you about Mr. Benson. Few, if any, of the members knew the gentlemen. He registered for our convention at the last moment; I believe he explained at what residence he was employed, information that may be difficult for me to find in our files, but unfortunately little more.”
“First of all, Hemming,” I snorted, “I’m not an ‘inspector,’ I’m a lieutenant. This ain’t Scotland Yard, just so you know. But what about finding the body? How’d that happen?”
“Ah.” Hey, at least it wasn’t “hmm.” “Well, Lieutenant, I had just come from one of the conference-rooms—where our main dinners are served, you understand. As this year’s president, it is my responsibility to oversee some of our less experienced butlers, valets, and general factotums—three in particular, who had not been doing as well in their studies.” (Studies!) “They meet on the other side of the hotel—so I passed through this smaller conference-room, where I found, lying there, the unfortunate Mr. Benson. I ran for assistance and found Mr. O’Connor, the hotel manager, and our vice-president, Phillips. They rushed in while I alerted the police, and that is when I believe Mr. Benson stated his final phrase.”
Seeing, once again, that I could get nothing out of Hemming, and feeling that I’d go crazy if I had to look at yet another butler, I turned to the hotel workers. I brought MacDonald with me to take notes and give me his thoughts. He’s pretty good at seeing an answer to things sometimes. The manager was a young guy, Thomas O’Connor, with glasses and asthma. (I knew the latter because he was nervous and kept using an inhaler.) He wore a gray suit and seemed like he wanted to feel important, high-and-mighty. It didn’t help that he looked like he’d just gotten out of high school.
“What do you know about this Giles Benson, Mr. O’Connor?”
“Yeah. Right, Lieutenant—right. I was on duty last night, but it was one of our check-in staff who checked Mr. Benson in, of course. You know, the Waldorf is proud to have one of the finest check-in services—”
“He checked in last night?”
“Right. I noticed him particularly because he hadn’t arrived with the majority of the other—er—convention participants.”
“Yeah. Uh—right, Lieutenant.”
“Take a note of that,” I murmured to McDonald. “Find out what he’d been doing before he got here. OK, go on, Mr. O’Connor.”
“This morning, after Mr. Hemming found the body, Mr. Philips and I entered—where we heard, almost immediately, ‘the butler did it!’ There’s not all that much more to tell, Lieutenant. None of the hotel staff had anything to do with Mr. Benson (I know nothing about him, to say the least)—besides the fact that housekeeping made his bed this morning. I can call the housekeeping department, of course.”
“And we’re gonna have to see his room. OK, thanks.”
Next on the list? Back to the butlers! Three of them, to be specific—the three of the butlers-in-training who hadn’t been doing as well with their “studies.” Their names? There was a Thompson, a Reilly, and a girl named Barbara Green. Their testimony was pretty much agreed on all particulars. They hadn’t anything to do with the deceased, to be quite honest. Yes, they’d seen him, all right. He was there, dressed in a gray suit, when the president was sworn in (oh, the drama) and given the ceremonial sash of office. Yes, Hemming had been going to see them on the morning of the murder, bringing a new outfit for Thompson. My pressing question for them had nothing to do with the murder, of course, and I didn’t ask it. It was simply “Why in the world would you—especially you, Miss Green—ever want to be butlers?”
Housekeeping, in the form of Mrs. Gonzalez, let me into room 803, but the room furnished few details for the investigation. In fact, it seemed as if Benson hadn’t brought anything with him, so spartan had he left his hotel room. MacDonald said he’d have the CSI team fingerprint the place, but I didn’t have much hope. I also checked out Hemming’s room, packed to the brim with butlers’ outfits; the vice president’s room, packed with books (voracious reader?); and the three trainees’ rooms, which were more akin to Benson’s in the light furnishing.
Speaking of the vice president, George Philips, the butler (butler again! The breed were going to give me nightmares) who had heard the dying words, was a middle-aged man who looked a little bit like Benson but was a great deal thinner. I had no niceties or pleasantries; my introduction was—
“So, what about these words, Philips?”
He grinned something of a cruel smile. “Words, Inspector—?”
That kind of took him off his high horse already. “Ah, lieutenant. Well, I entered the room after Hemming, our president [he sort of spit out the word—I sensed that he thought he should be president, or something like that], came running, saying that Benson had been killed. Now, I hadn’t the foggiest notion who Benson was at the time—he certainly did not mix much with the other butlers—but I checked in the room anyway. Even before I entered, he screamed, ‘The butler did it!’”
“‘The butler did it,’” I repeated. “Gee, how that really helps us. Wait! You were in the room when he said, weren’t you?”
“Yes, as I just explained. I—”
Thoughts were coming together. After all, Benson had to have had a specific butler in mind at a butlers’ convention…
“One more thing,” I murmured. “You wanted the president spot for yourself? Is that it? You…”
“Ah, I see you catch on quickly, Lieutenant. No, it’s not quite that, you understand. Let me see if I can explain this as a non-servant [amazing how that could sound like snobbery] would understand it: Hemming is a valet. I am a butler. The difference is large. The difference is…”
I didn’t care much about the difference. I finished the interview, sent McDonald back to the precinct with the CSI team, told Schwartz to try and find anyone who’d seen anything in the area, and headed swiftly over to Sardi’s. This last item wasn’t as incongruous as it sounds. For, under his own caricature, the man I had come to see was teaching the barman how to mix drinks. Typical.
“The problem is,” Geoffrey Lord was saying, the shaker in his hand and the bartender watching closely, “we’ve got to distinguish between real cocktails and just sugary drinks.”
“Right,” the bartender said.
“So I always recommend British vodka for vodka martinis, you understand. Funny how these things get phased out. I…”
“Hey, Geoff,” I told him, walking up to the bar.
He turned to me, confused for a minute, and then got a great big smile on his face. “And how’s the NYPD treatin’ you, Lieutenant?” He turned back to the bartender—“We’ll finish this up in a little while, OK, Joe?”—and then back to me. “A drink or anything? Joe’s one of the best in the country, and I should know after the massive cross-country trip…”
“Yeah, why’d you ever do that?”
“I thought I’d go crazy in Tinseltown, dealing with F.Z. Weinberg and his band of flying monkeys, so I needed the road trip even if just to clear my head. But what’s up?”
I told him about the case—everything I just explained. He laughed in all the right places, and I thought he’d start chortling so hard the restaurant would cave in. When I finally finished, he took a deep breath, grabbed a napkin from the table and a pen from his pocket, and wrote a few words down.
“OK. Wow, boy-o, this is the nuttiest case I’ve ever heard of! Do you have any ideas?”
I told him my ideas. He nodded and showed me what he’d written.
“All right,” I said, “so we’re on the same page—literally here. I was just wondering if you had any ideas as to how we’d convict, and… Damn it!”
Geoff looked at me bemused. “What’s wrong?”
I said, “Your clue #3. I never saw it, but it’s been staring me in the face the whole time… That’s the way to convict!”
“I don’t know,” Geoff said, scratching his neck; “the whole thing could be wildly wrong…”
“…but if we’re both thinking the same thing I doubt it, Geoff. Do you think you could spare me a few hours tonight?”
His eyes dropped almost shamefacedly. “I feel terrible for saying no to a friend in need, but tonight I’m doing my lecture series on ‘detective stories in the modern world.’ I…”
“No worries,” I said, rising. “Thanks a million, Geoff. Tonight I’ll go and make the arrest of…”
Challenge to the Reader:
Now it’s your turn, dear reader. The identity of the murderer is obvious, if you look hard enough. Your questions: who committed the crime? How did our friend the Lieutenant know? And what did Giles Benson mean by saying “the butler did it”? Think you’ve got it? Let’s find out.
At the Waldorf-Astoria, that night, I ascended the stairs of the butlers’ convention main stage, the meeting having just been called to order, and announced that I knew the identity of the murderer. I received gasps from the assembled penguin-people and angry questioning from president and vice president of the illustrious union.
“It wasn’t actually all that difficult,” I said into the microphone, “but then it never is in retrospect. There were about five clues that made the identity of the murderer obvious and explained the dying message. I’m going to sound like a friend of mine, Mr. Geoffrey Lord, but, hey, the guy’s speech patterns sometimes rub off on me:
“1. The Clue of the Victim’s Appearance
“2. The Clue of the Victim’s Non-appearance
“3. The Clue of the President’s Sash
“4. The Clue of Proper Decorum
“5. The Clue of the Proper Title.
“My dear inspector,” Hemming drawled, “I doubt that anyone could understand the elucidation of the crime after your vague hints.”
“But you would, Mr. Hemming,” I said, smiling at him, “because you’re the murderer.”
It shut him up all well and proper for a moment, for which I was immensely thankful. I always find it very relieving when someone I despise ends up being the villain.
“Let’s start from the beginning, though, because the identity of the murderer is not the real surprise in this business.
“1. The Clue of the Victim’s Appearance. One of the things I was struck by, when I began this crazy case, was the diversity of butlers. But there was one thing they all had in common—they were all dressed in their butler uniforms. Well, why is that so interesting? Because the victim wasn’t wearing his.”
“But he was!” Hemming exploded.
“As much as I’d like this valet to be the murderer,” Philips murmured, “I do have to agree. He was wearing his uniform. He…”
“No, he wasn’t,” I put in quickly. “Think back to the corpse. His butler’s outfit was far too small for him. That makes no sense, especially as every other butler here wore a tailored uniform. It was too small for him: not just a little too small, but far too small. Let’s think of what else we have here? We have a stout—no, fat—man, with hair parted on the left. Yes, there are fat butlers, but not many of them (because that’s generally a sign of wealth, to afford such food, not of domestic service)—and I doubt that any butler, especially one who’s a member of this—er—‘noble order,’ would have his hair parted on the left side. I noticed at the beginning that every other butler had his hair parted in the middle, à la Wodehouse’s Jeeves.
“2. The Clue of the Victim’s Non-appearance. Benson didn’t arrive with any of the other participants. O’Connor, the manager, told us that. You yourself, Hemming, told us none of the other butlers really knew him. In fact, Henning, you’re the only person who did know him. Philips didn’t, and neither did Messrs. Thompson and Reilly and Miss Green.
“There’s another meaning to ‘non-appearance,’ though. Stop thinking of what Benson did have. What didn’t he have in that spartan room of his? Any other butlers’ uniforms. But who did have a large number of butlers’ uniforms? None other than William Hemming.
“I’m going to leave aside the clue of the presidential sash just for the time being. I think you’ll understand why in a moment.
“4. The Clue of the Proper Decorum. Hemming, we may suppose, is a perfect butler, with proper decorum. (Or—yes, Philips!—valet.) We’ve seen it. As a perfect butler, he calls his fellow butlers by their last names—Philips, Thompson, Reilly. He calls others by their title—‘lieutenant,’ ‘mister.’ Yet he is wildly demure—to Benson! The whole time I was interviewing him, it was always ‘Mr. Benson.’ Now, this isn’t a major point, but it’s excellent substantiation.
“5. The Clue of the Proper Title. Hemming is a valet, not a butler, as Philips has told us again and again. Yet, when Benson screamed ‘the butler did it!’ he could be referring to one person only—Hemming. Why? Both Philips and O’Connor say the scream came immediately—as Philips put it, before he’d even entered the room. Why would he have done this? Not to accuse them—they were coming into the room; he could have just said, ‘You did it!’ But, no, he said ‘the butler did it!’ Which butler? Obviously the one who had just been in the room. But Hemming’s not a butler—I know, Mr. Philips! In that case, Benson did not scream out the proper title. He referred to a valet as a butler. Ergo: he was not aware of Hemming’s proper title. Ergo: he was not a member of the butlers’ convention.
“When put together with the previous clues, we can come to only one conclusion.
“Q.E.D.: Giles Benson was not a butler.”
Pause while this settled in.
“It should really surprise no one. Who was the only person who said that Benson was a butler? Hemming, of course. Benson obviously wasn’t a butler. Therefore: Hemming wasn’t telling the truth.
“But was Hemming the murderer? Probably, due to the clue of the proper title. But let’s make sure. Mr. Hemming, may I ask a favor? That sash you’re wearing—the presidential sash of the Butlers’ Union. May I see it?”
That’s what finished him, of course. He admitted the whole thing. Benson had been a moneylender; he had tracked Hemming down to the butlers’ convention, checked in to find him and get his money back. That was when Hemming had dreamt up the whole plan, and executed it beautifully. Geoffrey Lord wrote me a letter about it, actually, a little while later:
“…The cleverness of Hemming’s plot, of course, depended on the fact that one supposes that a fellow found in a butler’s uniform is a butler. I first started thinking in that direction because he was bringing clean clothing for Thompson on the morning of the murder.I thought, Whatever happened to that clean clothing? If you look at it in the right way, it had to be what was used to redress Benson and therefore make him look like a butler. It did help that Benson had a ‘butler-sounding name,’ though that was sheer chance, amusingly enough. I knew that if he were the murderer the presidential sash was too good a weapon for him to pass up. It was right there, after all—useful for strangulation. There were ways he could have got off, of course, but it seemed logical that he’d confess, and he did. An interesting and unusual case—and absolutely hilarious. You know, they’re going to have to change the old cliché. Now it will have to be ‘the valet did it!’”
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