Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 639
The technique used in “The Two Bottles of Relish” resembles that of Arthur Conan Doyle in his famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Both Doyle and Dunsany were indebted to the American genius Edgar Allan Poe, who is credited with being the father of the detective story with two 1840’s “tales of ratiocination”: “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.” J. Brander Matthews, a distinguished literary critic, wrote that the history of the detective story began with the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Branders called the story “a masterpiece of its kind, which even its author was unable to surpass; and Poe, unlike most other originators, rang the bell the very first time.”
Poe invented many of the conventions of the detective story that are still in use today. He had the wisdom to tell his tales of ratiocination from the point of view of a minor character, so that it was unnecessary for him to disclose any of his hero C. Auguste Dupin’s thought processes until the surprising climax of the story. Just as Dupin had his anonymous biographer and Holmes had his friend Dr. Watson, so Linley is provided with the good-natured, loyal, but slow-witted Smethers to chronicle his genius. The narrative style of Dunsany’s story is conversational, deliberately amateurish, and full of slang, because Smethers has less education than Poe’s or Doyle’s narrators and belongs to a lower social class.
All three heroes are “amateur detectives.” Poe established the useful convention that the amateur detective had to be intellectually superior to the bungling police and also indifferent to fame. Because Dupin, Holmes, and Linley are useful to the police, they are given easy access to police assistance. The ineffectual police, who usually get the credit, are so grateful that they are happy to give the amateur detectives an aegis, a cloak of authority that enables them to question witnesses, poke around crime scenes, and generally act as official detectives themselves. Without this aegis, the amateur detective would be severely handicapped, especially when investigating a murder, and stories of their exploits would be less interesting or less credible.
“The Two Bottles of Relish” is a variation of the so-called “locked room mystery,” which was invented by Poe in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and used innumerable times by Doyle. In a locked room mystery, the central problem is how the criminal entered or exited or managed to get incriminating evidence off the premises under seemingly impossible circumstances. In “The Two Bottles of Relish,” the central problem is how the murderer could dispose of the corpse under tight police surveillance.
Although Dunsany borrows from both Doyle and Poe in his nine “little tales of Smethers,” as he called them, he contributes two innovations. The first is his method of dangling the most important clue right under the reader’s nose. Poe and Doyle often withheld important information from the reader; Dunsany presents the vital clues on a silver platter, thereby giving readers a sporting chance to arrive at the solution by themselves. It is noteworthy that Dunsany actually used the most important clue, the two bottles of relish, as the title of his story.
His solution to the crime seems almost a parody of Poe and Doyle, who never thought of anything as weird as having a murderer eat his victim in order to dispose of the corpus delicti. The macabre humor in “The Two Bottles of Relish,” another important innovation, is so characteristic of Dunsany’s fiction that it might be called a Dunsany trademark. Many writers have copied him over the years. Some of the classic films of director Alfred Hitchcock display a similar playful attitude toward murder that suggests that both the writer and the viewer share a secret “relish” for the details of gory crimes.
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