Thursday, 15 May 2014

Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, 1953

In celebration of ‘Crime Fiction of the 1950s’ for Friday’s Forgotten Books (and short stories) over at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

The room was warm, the curtains were closed, the two table lamps were lit. On the cupboard behind her there were two glasses and some drinks. Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work.

I’m going to keep this review short as Lamb to the Slaughter, an unexpected crime fiction by Roald Dahl, is only 2,393 words long.

Devoted housewife Mary Maloney is beside herself with joy when her husband, police detective Patrick Maloney, returns home after a long and tiring day at the police station. She idolises her husband and looks forward to his company each evening. They sit opposite each other and sip their drinks. 


Mary is glowing. She is sewing, probably clothes, for their unborn child. After finishing his second drink, Patrick breaks the news to her, quietly and gently. He tells her that he has thought about it a lot and that there is no other way. He promises to give her money and take care of her needs. The reader can only infer that he is leaving her for another woman.

Mary is puzzled and shocked. She gets up from her chair, leaves the room, and returns with a big frozen leg of lamb that she and Patrick were going to have for supper. When her husband tells her that he is going out, Mary finds a new, if chilling, use for it.
 

Lamb to the Slaughter is not so much about the murder of Patrick as about a calm and composed Mary who prepares herself before ringing up his friends at the police station, to report the tragedy that is about to destroy her beautiful life.

I, for one, did not know that British novelist Roald Dahl had written a crime story bordering on noir and police procedural with a strong whiff of dark comedy. Included in Dahl’s anthology Someone Like You, this is probably the best short story I've read so far this year. I recommend it highly.

According to Wikipedia, Lamb to the Slaughter was initially rejected by The New Yorker and later published in Harper's Magazine in September 1953. It was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 1958, the story appearing on the two-disc special edition DVD of Hitchcock's Psycho, and Roald Dahl's British TV series Tales of the Unexpected. It has also been adapted in other creative forms including cartoon and fabric painting. The idea for the story was apparently suggested by his friend Ian Fleming.

20 comments:

  1. Classic story with an amazing ending. I hope my review of Someone Like You a few years ago was what got you to seek out this pioneer short story collection. Even if not I'm glad you discovered the real Roald Dahl who is too often overshadowed by the children's Dahl. His cruel sense of humor is evident in both writing styles but I prefer him in his adult mode.

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    1. John, I agree about the ending; it was really good. I'm afraid I haven't read your review of SOMEONE LIKE YOU. In fact, I didn't know much about Dahl's adult fiction until I read about the collection and found this short story on Google docs. I've read only some of his children's stories and now look forward to reading more of his adult fare. If they're as good as LAMB TO A SLAUGHTER, with a "cruel sense of humour" as you put it, then I'm in for a treat.

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    2. Uh..yes, you did. You even commented on the post. Or was that an impostor? ;^) Well, it was two years ago so I guess you're off the hook.

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    3. Oops...and a loud one, John! That was me, all right. But I'm glad I'm off the hook for the truth is I don't remember what I reviewed and posted on my blog three months ago, let alone my comments elsewhere. I've to frequently revert to my earlier posts and a list of stories and books I've read to jog my memory. I re-read your review of SOMEONE LIKE YOU and remembered Dahl's terse reply to your letter to him.

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  2. Prashant, I had no idea this was written by Dahl. The black humour in the story is what I remember most.

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    1. Neer, me neither. I thought he only wrote children's stories. This is what happens when you pigeonhole a writer.

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  3. Perry much a perfect story Prashant - I love Dahl's work, whether his dark adult stories or his dark children;s fantasies - may not have been the easiest man to get along with, but hsi books are fab! If you like his stouff, you should also try the shorts stories by John Collier and Stanley Ellin

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    1. Sergio, thank you. I hadn't read Dahl in years and when I chanced upon this story, I thought it'd be a good idea to read and review it for the fifties theme for FFB. His dark comedy was a surprise but it appealed to me. Thanks for mentioning Collier and Ellin; I'll check out their books.

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  4. I've not read Dahl and to be honest neither did my children as they were growing up. (Ok there was the odd exception - James and the Giant Peach,) We have visited his museum in which is about 10-15 miles up the road from us.

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    1. Col, I read Roald Dahl much later in life. In fact, even now I know him better through the screen adaptations of some of his stories. I read about the museum and gallery in his honour and it seemed to me there are more than two of each, probably outside England. I'd love to see the one close to your place.

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  5. Great choice! I've read almost all of Roald Dahl's work. My wife used to read his children's books to her classes. I have a copy of his memoirs that I'm saving for this Summer's reading.

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    1. George, thank you. I'd have liked to review a crime fiction novel from the fifties but I didn't have the time mainly because I put it off until the last moment. I look forward to reading your review of Roald Dahl's memoirs.

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  6. For people my age, in the UK, we knew Dahl first of all as a writer of very dark short stories - there was a TV series called Tales of the Unexpected. The children's books came later. Lamb to the Slaughter is a great short story. He also wrote memoirs which were very good.

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    1. Moira, I was familiar only with Dahl's children's stories till I read this one which, I agree, is a great story. His other dark stories are now in my reading zone. I read about the British television series TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED though I haven't had the occasion to see it.

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  7. I had heard of this story but now I know more about it. Haven't read it. I think the only Dahl I have read is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and that was a long time ago.

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    1. Tracy, I have not read CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY though I have seen the two film adaptations starring Gene Wilder and Johnny Depp. I want to read more of his adult fiction.

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  8. All I know about Roald Dahl is that he wrote children's stories and (according to gossip) betrayed his wife Patricia Neal as she lay in a coma. I've always hoped that wasn't true. But I heard he could be a difficult man.

    Anyway, haven't read this but sort of heard about the murder weapon thing long ago from the Alfred Hitchcock show which had a similar story. My view is this: What else is a woman to do with a a frozen piece of meat when presented with such treachery? :)

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    1. Yvette, I didn't know about that aspect of Dahl's personal life. I, too, had read only his children's stories until I chanced upon this one. You're right about the murder weapon: the story was adapted in an episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," 1958, and in the British series "Tales of the Unexpected" neither of which I have seen.

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  9. A great story. I remember reading this as a teenager in school. And funnily enough, I writer recently told me of something similar happening in real life.

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    1. Sarah, I agree, it is a very good story, and certainly one I wasn't aware of. This has paved the way for more adult fiction by Dahl.

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