Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Two Bottles of Relish” is an example of the “perfect crime” story. The message in all such stories is invariably the same: “Crime does not pay.” To highlight and dramatize the message, the author contrives a nearly perfect crime and makes it appear that the perpetrator is going to get away with it. Then at the last moment the criminal’s nemesis, the detective, manages to come up with the answer to the problem, proving that even the most carefully contrived scheme by the most brilliant mind will fail because a nearly universal law governs matters of morality, dictating that good deeds are rewarded and wicked deeds are punished.

Readers enjoy perfect-crime stories such as “The Two Bottles of Relish” because they permit them to indulge their own fantasies about violence and antisocial behavior while receiving the assurance at the end that they live in an orderly society in which they can count on their personal security being protected. The popular Columbo films on television, starring Peter Falk, were all based on the supposition that has been expressed in various ways in such comfortable homilies as “Crime does not pay,” “Murder will out,” and “There is no such thing as a perfect crime.” In William Shakespeare’s classic murder drama Macbeth (1606), his hero repeatedly reflects on the impossibility of getting away with murder. For example:

It will have blood, they say; blood will have blood.Stones have been known to move and trees to speak;Augures and understood relations haveBy maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forthThe secretest man of blood.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychoanalysis, stated that modern civilization is a thin veneer and that all human beings harbor aggressive instincts that they conceal under clean linen and proper manners in order to maintain the illusion of peace, order, and respectability. Perfect-crime stories provide a sort of safety valve by giving readers a taste of blood while simultaneously assuring them that civilization is intact because it is protected by the authorities as well as by such master amateur sleuths as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Dunsany’s Linley, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, and a host of other fictional detectives.